Governors Fume Over Bush’s Last Minute Air Pollution Rule

Environment News Service
By J.R. Pegg

NRG's Montville power plant in Connecticut runs on fuel oil and natural gas. (Photo by C. Bergesen)

WASHINGTON, DC, November 24, 2008 (ENS) – A bipartisan group of six Northeastern governors is urging the Bush administration to abandon a plan that would relax pollution control requirements on power plants, saying the proposed rule would increase air pollution and threaten public health.

The concerns raised by the governors echo worries expressed by environmentalists and public health advocates, who also fear the Bush administration is keen to push through additional industry-friendly air rules before leaving office on January 20, 2009.

The regulation that has drawn the ire of the Northeastern governors would change a key part of the Clean Air Act’s New Source Review, NSR, program, which was created to ensure that owners of older power plants would modernize pollution controls when they make modifications to facilities that result in increased emissions.

Currently, the NSR requirements are triggered when a power plant makes an upgrade that will result in an increase in annual emissions. The Bush administration’s proposal would change that test, exempting facilities from NSR if the modifications do not change in the plant’s hourly emissions.

“What might appear to be a simple word change could have an enormous – and ominous – impact,” said Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell. “Using hourly instead of annual emissions as the threshold for a New Source Review and the installation of pollution control devices stands the intent of the Clean Air Act on its head.”

Rell, along with fellow Republican governors Donald Carcieri of Rhode Island and James Douglas of Vermont, sent a letter on Friday outlining these concerns to the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A trio of Democratic govenors – Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, John Lynch of New Hampshire and John Baldacci of Maine – also signed the letter.

The governors, repeating concerns raised by environmentalists, public health advocacy groups and state air pollution regulators, contend the proposal ignores reality.

The proposal would force federal regulators to “effectively disregard” the fact that although a modification to a plant may not boost hourly emissions, it would be very likely to boost annual emissions by allowing it to operate for longer hours, the governors wrote.

“This would result in a net detriment, not a net benefit, to public health and environmental quality,” according to the November 21 letter.

The letter also noted that when the Bush administration first proposed the rule change in October 2005, it argued that two other new rules developed to cut power plant emissions would ensure older plants installed newer pollution controls. But those two regulations – the Clean Air Interstate Rule and the Clean Air Mercury Rule – have been rejected by federal courts.

Dominion Energy's Salem Harbor power plant in Massachusetts burns coal and heavy oil. (Photo by Daniel Fabricant)
Dominion Energy

If the rule change is finalized, Rell said her state would “pursue every available legal option” to overturn it.

“We have worked far too hard to improve the quality of the air we breathe,” Rell said. “We cannot – and will not – allow our progress to be undermined by the actions of an EPA that has lost sight of its mission.”

But the window for finalizing the new regulation is closing. The EPA has yet to send the rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget for final review.

But there are still at least a few weeks before the door closes on the possibility the rule becomes reality – any regulation deemed to have no significant economic impact enters into effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.

This means the Bush administration has until at least December 19 to publish rules that will become final before President-elect Barack Obama takes office.

And regulatory experts believe that overturning rules finalized by that date could be difficult, potentially requiring EPA to go through another rulemaking process, something that could take months or even years.

The concern has environmentalists and public health groups on high alert, with worries over other possible changes to the NSR program, including a revision that would weaken Clean Air Act protections for national parks and wilderness areas.

Dominion Energy's Brayton Point power plant in Massachusetts burns coal, oil and natural gas. (Photo by Alexey Sergeev)
Dominion Energy

That regulation centers on requirements originally developed to limit increases in air pollution that affects parks, wildlife refuges and other “Class 1” scenic areas afforded special protections under the Clean Air Act.

The proposal, which is currently under review by the Office of Management and Budget, would alter how regulators measure pollution levels near these areas.

Currently, levels are measured over three hour and 24 hour periods – the Bush administration’s change would call for levels to be averaged over a year.

Critics contend this would undercount the levels of air pollution, permitting power plants and other industrial facilities to emit more pollution. Opponents also worry the rule change could make it easier to build new power plants near parks and other Class 1 areas.

Documents publicized by the “Washington Post” last week indicate that at least half of the EPA’s 10 regional administrators have formally protested against the idea, raising concerns it would allow the significant deterioration of air quality in some of the nation’s most pristine areas.

The administration has ignored calls by several key lawmakers – including the new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, California Democrat Henry Waxman, to abandon the plan.

The EPA could issue the New Source Review rule as soon as this week.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.