EPA set to unveil host of new regs

The Obama administration is looking forward to a host of new environmental regulations that go far beyond the president's plans to issue new standards for greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing power plants.

The new regulations, previewed in the administration's spring regulatory roadmap released this week, cover everything from pollution runoff from military ships to landfill methane emissions, and in some cases will be issued long after called for under the law.

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This September, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to propose rules for greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, and next June will issue draft rules for existing facilities.

Those dates match up with the timeline President Obama has given for the new regulations, which supporters have cheered as a major step in confronting climate change.

That's a good sign that the administration is serious about the rules, according to James Goodwin, a policy analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform.

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"I'm encouraged by that, that they're saying in multiple places that this is sort of the schedule that the rules are going to follow," he said.

He added, "I'd put that as an encouraging sign that everything is on track, but again, these rules, the power plant rules, have kind of a long history of delays, so I'm going to have to wait and see what actually happens in reality."

The administration first unveiled a draft rule for new power plants in 2012, but delayed finalizing the proposal after more than 2 million comments were submitted by the public.

The EPA is also looking to regulate the pollution discharges from military ships, including drainage from onboard photography labs, deck runoff from rain and seawater and foam used to fight fires onboard.

The agency expects to propose that rule this month and finalize it next June.

Other rules planned to be proposed in coming months would regulate new refrigerants used in automobile air conditioners, update 29-year-old standards for grain elevators and renew an effort to change disposals of pharmaceuticals that are considered hazardous waste.

The new EPA regulations will likely draw increased scrutiny from lawmakers and outside business and advocacy groups.

"Obviously they attract the most attention because that's where most cost and benefits lie," said Sherzod Abdukadirov, a research fellow with the Mercatus Center, which is often skeptical of new regulations.

"Given the size and impact of environmental regulations, it is really important to make sure that we get them right, that they are high quality," he added, so that outside groups know what to expect.

The regulatory agenda is usually published twice a year, in April and October, so the July 3 release was late in coming. Last year, the administration published just one rulemaking roadmap, in December.

Outside analysts and business groups have criticized the delay as a problematic habit that shields regulatory action from public scrutiny.

"It certainly is better than nothing, but it is a problem specifically from the transparency perspective," said Abdukadirov on Friday. "This is coming from the administration that has identified transparency as a priority in the regulatory system."

However, the delay of the agenda itself is far from the only deviation from the administration's regulatory schedule. 

The EPA plans to finalize a rule on landfill emissions next July, two months later than it had initially agreed to in a legal settlement. 

The agency had originally planned to finalize the rule next May in response to a lawsuit from the Environmental Defense Fund, which sued the EPA for failing to review and update the emissions standards for methane and other landfill pollutants since 1996. The agency is required by law to review the standard every eight years.

The environmental group and the EPA have since agreed to push back the deadline. The agency's first draft is now expected in February.

"We're very mindful of, I think, the urgency to get rigorous standards, and we want to make sure that the standards are as rigorous as possible," said Peter Zalzal, a staff attorney with the organization. "We're looking forward to the February 2014 proposal."

The EPA's regulatory schedule also tells the story of rules that have long been delayed, such as possible oversight on the ash from coal power plants.

Since 2007, the EPA has been working to regulate the waste, but so far has failed to issue much beyond a criticized 2010 proposal.

The new agenda shows no real progress in the EPA's issuance of the rule. The agency does not list a date for the rule's expected finalization, and only plans to release a public notice in August, the contents of which are a mystery.

"It seems like that rule is not going anywhere fast," said Goodwin.

Additionally, by law the EPA was supposed to finalize a standard for formaldehyde emissions from particleboard and plywood "not later than January 1, 2013…" In the new agenda, however, the administration does not expect the regulations finalized until next July.

Delays like those lead Goodwin to look at the regulatory schedule as more a chronicle of delayed rules than a guidebook of new ones.

Instead of seeing a regulatory hurricane or flood, as some might, he sees "kind of a regulatory drought -- rules constantly being delayed, delayed, delayed," he said. "If you read it honestly, the regulatory agenda, that's what I get from it every time it comes out."