December 17, 2012

EPA’s soot rule sign for second term?

From: Utility Products

EPA’s critics say they see ill omens for President Barack Obama’s second term in Friday’s announcement of significantly tightened air pollution limits on soot from exhaust pipes and smokestacks.

The finished rule that emerged from the agency Friday is mostly as stringent as the one that EPA submitted for White House review in the summer. That’s a turnaround from the experience of the last couple of years, in which White House pressure forced the EPA to postpone a new rule on smog and placed regulations on toxic coal ash into a deep freeze.

The latest development heartened environmental groups, which praised the Obama administration for standing up to pressure from industry and the Hill — though some say they’re still waiting for tough action on climate change.

“Our air will be cleaner and thousands of Americans won’t have to face the dangerous health impacts of soot pollution from dirty sources like power plants and diesel trucks,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation voters.

But Friday’s announcement also had some industry groups wondering what to expect in the coming months, when the EPA is expected to finish regulations for greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, with a host of pending regulations for industrial boilers, power plants and the coal industry waiting in the wings.

“We think it is [a] troublesome sign from the EPA,” said National Association of Manufacturers spokesman Jeff Ostermayer. “Most of these regulations have been on hold since before the election, and now we fear we will see them move forward with one after another, which is not good for an economy still struggling to recover.”

One outspoken industry supporter, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), has been warning for months about what he calls the “regulatory cliff” — a deluge of regulations brought on by a second Obama administration unencumbered by reelection worries. He called the new soot rule “the first in an onslaught of post-election rulemakings that will place considerable burdens on our struggling economy.”

“We are concerned about what this means for a second-term EPA,” said Howard Feldman, the American Petroleum Institute’s director of regulatory and scientific affairs, expressing worry that “things are just going to come pouring out onto everyone shortly. There’s quite a queue of things out there.”

Feldman noted that EPA had sent the final rule Dec. 4 to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review, and persuaded OMB to turn it around with what is considered dizzying speed for the regulatory world.

“OMB had obviously very little time to consider the rule,” he said. The office was “taking meetings with stakeholders yesterday. I was there yesterday.”

The rule prompted a flurry of last-minute visits to OMB in the final days, including from several environmental groups, the American Chemistry Council, the National Association of Manufacturers, API and other industry groups. Critics in Congress also expressed 11th-hour interest — the House Science Committee wrote to EPA on Thursday to demand the data justifying the rule, while Inhofe and five other senators sent a letter Friday urging the agency to hold back on issuing the soot standard.

Meanwhile, from the left, the White House heard vocal support from environmentalists, several state attorneys general, public health groups and members of Congress who wanted to see a stricter standard emerge on Friday.

Some experts weren’t sure that the soot rule augurs a newly emboldened EPA. “It’s too soon to say,” said Jeff Holmstead, who was the agency’s air chief during the George W. Bush administration.

In Friday’s announcement, EPA set a new annual air quality standard for soot — also known as fine particulate matter or “PM2.5” — at 12 micrograms per cubic meter. That’s significantly tighter than the standard of 15 that the agency had established during the Clinton administration, which EPA’s science advisers have called too weak, given recent studies, to prevent heart attacks, stroke, cardiac arrest, congestive heart failure and exacerbated symptoms of asthma and other respiratory problems.

Other research shows that “long-term PM2.5 exposures may be linked to cancer and to harmful developmental and reproductive effects, such as infant mortality and low birth weight,” EPA says.

Preventing such health problems could provide health benefits of up to $5 billion a year, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said Friday.

Earlier this year, the agency considered weakening the proposed soot standard to a range of 12 to 13 micrograms per cubic meter in response to pressure from OMB during the interagency review process. But it swung back to 12 in the final version that came out Friday.

It was a sharp contrast from what happened to EPA’s smog rule in September 2011, when the agency itself was surprised by the White House decision to postpone action until 2013. That proposal would have lowered the EPA air quality standard for ozone to 70 parts per billion, down from 75.

But Holmstead said the smog and soot decisions aren’t totally comparable.

“PM2.5 and ozone really are different in terms of their impact on local economies,” Holmstead said. “I know it seems strange, but lowering ozone from 75 to 70 actually puts a lot more counties in non-attainment than lowering PM2.5 from 15 to 12.”

If a geographic area fails to meet the standard — non-attainment — then businesses can face tighter permit restrictions or costly air cleanup costs as the state tries to bring the air up to snuff. EPA says 99 percent of U.S. counties will be able to meet the new soot standard by a 2020 deadline — though opponents of the rule contest that assertion.

Holmstead noted that EPA wound up dropping one aspect of its soot standard — a proposed tightening of its “secondary” air quality standard that deals with environmental effects such as haze.

Soot is a more politically potent issue, some supporters of the standard say, because the health effects are more readily tied to death.

“It is different from ozone,” said Clean Air Task Force President Frank O’Donnell, adding that “there was no way to argue against the cost-benefit ratio on this one.”

American Lung Association Assistant Vice President Peter Iwanowicz agreed, saying a connection between premature death and soot “makes it sit within the OMB accounting framework better than some other rules.”

“I think EPA had more leverage to do what it wanted here, post-election,” said O’Donnell, who supports the rule. “Does this mean EPA will get its way on everything from now on? I doubt it. I think [it] will depend on the timing, and the issue.”

Bill Becker, head of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents state regulators, said Friday’s decision was “predictable,” particularly given the fact that the agency’s science advisers had suggested the tighter standards — not necessarily indicative of a greener direction for the White House.

“The public deserves the right to know whether the air they breathe is safe,” Becker said, cheering the rule. But Becker also said the new standards make it “critical that EPA proceed expeditiously to issue important federal measures, including controls on power plants, industrial boilers and fuels, that will assist these communities meet their health-based standards.”

It’s hard to know how Friday’s outcome will affect future decisions, such as greenhouse gas regulations for power plants. “But those are sort of next up on everybody’s list. … That will be a true litmus test,” Iwanowicz said.

Former Obama climate and energy adviser Carol Browner, who led EPA in the Clinton administration, said as much in her statement praising Friday’s decision.

“The Obama administration should be commended for this work and encouraged to continue to fight for cleaner air with protections against carbon pollution from power plants,” she said.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Name not required for anonymous comments. Email is optional and will not be published.