EPA works to ease air pollution permitting process

EPA works to ease air pollution permitting process
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The Trump administration wants to ease the air pollution permitting process for certain power plants and manufacturers.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittDem senator presses EPA over reporter 'intimidation' Overnight Finance: House sends Dodd-Frank rollbacks to Trump | What's in the bill | Trump says there is 'no deal' to help ZTE | Panel approves bill to toughen foreign investment reviews Overnight Energy: Pruitt spent at least ,600 to decorate office | EPA backtracks and lets reporters into summit after criticism | White House to 'look into' incident MORE published a memorandum Thursday saying the agency won’t “second guess” the analyses that companies have to conduct before construction projects on their plants to determine whether they might emit more pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.

It’s the first step in a major initiative the Trump administration is undertaking to ease the process, dubbed New Source Review, of obtaining permits for new or reconstructed plants’ emissions under the Clean Air Act. That is part of a larger Trump administration effort to ease regulatory burdens for manufacturing and related business sectors.

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“The point is to allow a company to have a level of certainty before beginning a project, that so long as they do the analysis and meet the requirements, they can move forward with that project,” an EPA official told The Hill.

“The previous administration distorted the requirements of that analysis as a means to limit expansion or improvement projects, primarily at coal-based power plants,” the official said.

The agency will still punish companies if their emissions end up exceeding what they had predicted. But it’s retreating from the Obama administration’s practice of sometimes refusing to grant permits if regulators suspect the companies didn’t properly conduct their emissions projections.

John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, sharply criticized the memo in a Friday blog post, saying it “gives polluters amnesty.”

“The Trump EPA enforcement retreat amounts to permission for industrial polluters to commit fraud and make false projections about their increased emissions, so long as those projections are ‘procedurally’ adequate — even if they are substantively bogus and ultimately harmful to air quality,” Walke wrote.

“This is not simply capitulation by the Trump EPA. It is abdication of EPA’s law enforcement responsibilities to uphold the law against polluters that may be knowingly breaking the law, and that EPA believes may be breaking the law,” he said.

The EPA defended its action, saying that it is not at all retreating from enforcing the law and going after polluters. That includes stepping in if a company violates the process set out for predicting pollution levels before getting reconstruction permits.

“What we are not doing is changing what is foundational EPA enforcement authority to go after the analysis on the front end if it doesn’t comport with the regulations as they are laid out,” the EPA official said.

“It also doesn’t prevent EPA from taking enforcement actions on the backend if the actual measured emissions associated with the power plant or the facility don’t align with the projections,” the official said.

The memo is, in part, a response to years-long litigation regarding EPA enforcement against DTE Energy over a Michigan plant. Judges in that case concluded that the EPA does have the authority to “second guess” pre-construction pollution estimates, but the exact nature of that second-guessing is still being sorted out.

The policy, which the EPA emphasizes is not a new regulation, comes weeks after the Senate confirmed Bill Wehrum to be the EPA’s top air pollution official.

Wehrum is taking the lead on the agency’s efforts to reform the permitting process for new and reconstructed air pollution sources. But the agency said Wehrum was not involved in Thursday’s memo, having recused himself because his former law firm, Hunton & Williams, represents DTE in the litigation.