EPA sets the stage for expanded climate rules

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled a schedule Thursday for setting greenhouse gas standards for power plants and oil refineries.

While EPA is pledging a “common-sense” approach, the move is likely to escalate a battle between the Obama administration and Republicans, who argue climate regulations will hurt the economy. Members of the GOP are pledging to block the rules on Capitol Hill next year.

The Clean Air Act standards will address two industry sectors that together account for almost 40 percent of U.S. emissions, EPA said.

The agency plans to propose so-called performance standards for oil- and coal-fired power plants in July of 2011, and for refineries in December of 2011. The agency plans to finalize the power plant rules in May of 2012 and complete the refiner rules in November of 2012.

“We are following through on our commitment to proceed in a measured and careful way to reduce [greenhouse gas] pollution that threatens the health and welfare of Americans, and contributes to climate change,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement.  

EPA has already completed rules that will begin to include carbon emissions in Clean Air Act permitting programs early next year. But those initial rules will only cover new and overhauled industrial plants with large emissions, and are applied on a case-by-case basis.

The rules slated for completion in 2012, in contrast, set a national, industry-specific standard for power plants and refineries which could be applied to existing facilities in some cases.

“These standards will help American companies attract private investment to the clean energy upgrades that make our companies more competitive and create good jobs here at home,” Jackson said.

But EPA’s schedule came under attack from an industry representative, who called the schedule "unrealistic."


"By singling out the energy sector, the agency puts the nation's fragile economic recovery at risk and stifles job creation. Small businesses, schools, hospitals and energy-intensive manufacturers are particularly at risk from high energy prices,” said Scott Segal, an attorney with the firm Bracewell & Giuliani who represents utilities and refiners, in a statement.

The agreement on the schedule for the rules stems from a lawsuit brought by states and environmental groups seeking controls on heat-trapping emissions.

EPA’s regulations have become the focal point of political battles over climate change after emissions-capping legislation collapsed on Capitol Hill.

Senior Republicans, including Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.), the incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, have pledged efforts to block EPA when they take control of the House next year.

But current House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) — who is about to hand the gavel to Republicans — doesn’t think the GOP can topple EPA greenhouse gas rules.

“They are not going to succeed in stopping EPA from acting under existing law, and I think the Republicans underestimate the support of the American people for environmental legislation,” Waxman told reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday.



“I don’t think they are going to get any bills passed to stop EPA. ... You need to pass it through both houses and get a signature by the president. I don’t think it is going to happen,” Waxman said.

Gina McCarthy, the EPA’s top air-pollution official, told reporters on a conference call Thursday that the rules are the “beginning of a process that will help decrease greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.”

She said there are no details to reveal yet, but stressed that EPA’s climate rules do not set an emissions cap for the industry sectors.

“It's not about establishing a tonnage that should or shouldn’t be emitted,” said McCarthy, the EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation. She emphasized that the agency’s focus is on technologies that cut emissions. McCarthy also said Thursday that the standards may not go into effect until as late as 2015 or 2016 for some power plants and refineries.

The upcoming rules drew a quick cheer from green groups.

“Power plants and oil refineries represent two of our biggest sources of carbon pollution, and these sources need to be held accountable for all of their pollution,” said Joe Mendelson, director of global warming policy for the National Wildlife Federation.

He said the standards would “will create regulatory certainty for industry, cut down on our energy waste and provide significant steps toward tackling the climate crisis that affects us all.”

Here’s how EPA described the rules it’s crafting for power plants and refineries.

“The Clean Air Act requires EPA to set industry-specific standards for new sources that emit significant quantities of harmful pollutants. These standards, called New Source Performance Standards (NSPS), set the level of pollution new facilities may emit and address air pollution from existing facilities. The act allows flexible and innovative approaches that take into account cost, health and environmental impacts and energy requirements,” the agency said in a summary.

EPA said it will host “listening sessions” early next year with business groups, states and other stakeholders.

This post was updated at 11:57 a.m., 12:03 p.m. and 12:24 p.m.