US EPA delays review of polluting facilities air standard rules

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced that it has delayed its review of Clinton-era tough legislation governing power plants and refineries until September, but vows to “vigorously” enforce lawsuits already instigated against utilities.

The EPA is still reviewing some 130,000 public responses it has received on the Clinton Administration’s New Source Review (NSR) programme, which requires utilities and other industries to install pollution controls when a new facility is built, or when an existing facility makes changes that significantly increase emissions, which had been due to be completed on 17 August. EPA Administrator Christie Whitman instead announced that EPA will propose a comprehensive strategy to significantly reduce air pollution and protect public health, incorporating the review of the NSR programme.

“Our top priority is protecting public health and the environment, and we are in the final stages of developing a comprehensive strategy that will allow us to take the next step forward into a new generation of air pollution controls for the 21st century,” Whitman said. “This fall, we will put forward an ambitious proposal that will reduce air pollution from power plants significantly more than the existing system. Subsequently, we will release the NSR report called for by the National Energy Policy.”

The NSR programme has been under review since May to determine its impact on investment in new electricity generation and refinery capacity, energy efficiency and environmental protection. EPA initiated the review in response to a recommendation from the president’s National Energy Policy Development Group, which also recommended that the Department of Justice (DOJ) conduct an independent review of existing NSR enforcement actions to ensure that they are consistent with the Clean Air Act. The EPA insists though that these actions are still to be enforced “vigorously”.

EPA says that its proposal will maintain stringent health-based standards and establish firm, mandatory caps on levels of pollution, while providing industry with the flexibility to find the most cost-effective means of meeting those standards. The approach will also “significantly reduce the administrative burden on state and federal environmental agencies, allowing them to devote limited resources to other programmes,” it says.

As part of the strategy, the Administration’s legislative proposals concerning power plants will benefit from the Clean Air Act’s acid rain “cap and trade” programme, which EPA says is widely recognised as “the most successful air pollution control programme in the world”, with its 100% industry rate of compliance and “extraordinarily low administrative costs”. The programme, EPA says, has eliminated more air pollution more cost-effectively in the last decade than all others combined.

This approach to pollution was strongly endorsed by US governors at the meeting of the bipartisan National Governor’s Association in Rhode Island, a week earlier, when governors unanimously adopted a National Energy Policy that called upon Congress to establish a flexible, market-based programme, such as emissions-trading credits, to combat air pollution.

“This bipartisan action by the nation’s governors provides a firm foundation for consensus and action this fall on this major environmental goal of the Administration,” said Whitman. “We are developing a comprehensive approach to improving our efforts to control air pollution, to achieve significant reductions in air pollution while simultaneously streamlining the regulatory process so it works better – achieving real reductions and full industry compliance at far less cost. Our review of the NSR regulation is part of our larger effort to craft a new, comprehensive strategy to combat air pollution, and I am not prepared to come to any conclusions about one isolated issue before we finish work on our entire proposal.”

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