Court ruling likely to intensify political tussle over EPA air pollution rule

A Thursday court ruling that granted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only a short extension to complete years-overdue air pollution standards for industrial boilers will likely intensify a GOP push to block the rules on Capitol Hill.

EPA’s planned “maximum achievable control technology” standards to curb mercury, soot and other pollutants from boilers have for months been a political target of industry groups and Republican lawmakers.

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House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) has singled out the so-called MACT rule as a “job-killing” regulation that will be on the panel’s agenda. A spokesman could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.

In a further sign the issue is a priority for politically connected industry groups, some of them this week called for the Obama administration to scale back the boiler rules under the new White House regulatory review policy.

EPA had sought to postpone issuing final emissions standards by over a year — until April of 2012 — in order to revise them. But Judge Paul Friedman of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ruling in a long-running case brought by environmentalists, on Thursday declined the request and instead granted only a one-month delay.

One option for Capitol Hill opponents would be dusting off the Congressional Review Act, a mid-1990s law that allows Congress to overturn federal rules but has been used successfully just once.

The judge’s decision drew quick attacks from industry groups Thursday.

“This means that EPA will have to finalize a rule that is based on a fundamentally flawed proposed rule, which EPA will have difficulty defending in court. In the meantime, all of industry, universities and district energy providers will have to spend tens of millions of dollars — perhaps unnecessarily — to prepare to meet the new standards,” said Bob Bessette, president of the Council of Industrial Boiler Owners, in a statement.

EPA said Thursday it was “disappointed” the court denied its request for a 15-month delay. The agency pledged that the final standards will be “significantly different” from what EPA floated last April.

Here’s part of EPA’s statement in response to the judge’s decision:

“The agency believes these changes still deserve further public review and comment and expects to solicit further comment through a reconsideration of the rules. Through the reconsideration process, EPA intends to ensure that the rules will be practical to implement and will protect all Americans from dangerous pollutants such as mercury and soot, which can damage children’s developing brains, aggravate asthma and cause heart attacks,” EPA said Thursday evening.

“The agency is considering all other options for addressing these issues before the rules would become effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register,” the agency said.