EPA chief looks to reassure coal state senators on greenhouse gas regulations

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said regulation of greenhouse gases from power plants and other industrial facilities won’t kick in this year in a letter to eight Senate Democrats who had expressed worries over the issue in a letter to the EPA on Friday.

Jackson’s quick effort to offer reassurances suggests the Obama administration is attempting to ward off Democratic support for legislation that would block planned EPA climate change rules entirely.

Jackson said that no stationary sources will be required to obtain Clean Air Act permits to cover their greenhouse gas emissions in 2010.

Jackson also said that EPA would phase-in permit requirements for large sources starting in 2011. But during the first half of 2011, only facilities that must already apply for permits to cover their non-greenhouse gas emissions will have to address the greenhouse gases in their applications.

EPA last year proposed that the first wave of climate rules for industrial facilities would cover only sites that emit at least 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases annually.

But Jackson’s letter backs off a bit – she states that between 2011 and 2013, the threshold for permitting would be “substantially higher” than the 25,000 ton level.

“In any event, EPA does not intend to subject the smallest sources to Clean Air Act permitting for greenhouse-gas emissions any sooner than 2016,” she wrote.

Jackson’s letter is a response to an inquiry Friday from Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.), and Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Mark Begich (Alaska), Robert Byrd (W.Va.), Robert Casey (Penn.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Carl Levin (Mich.).

In a letter to Jackson, they said they had “serious economic and energy security concerns” about the planned emissions rules, and asked several questions about the timing and scope of the measures.

Rockefeller also said he's planning a bill to suspend EPA’s regulatory authority while Congress works on broader climate and energy legislation.

The most immediate threat to EPA is a resolution that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) may bring to the floor next month that would overturn EPA’s “endangerment finding” that greenhouse gases threaten human health and welfare. The finding is a legal precursor to regulating heat-trapping emissions.

Nullifying the endangerment finding would also spell the end for far less controversial rules to curb emissions from automobiles that EPA plans to finalize next month for model years 2012-2016. Jackson said that would harm the auto industry by allowing states to move ahead with their own plans.

“The impacts of that result would be significant,” Jackson wrote. “In particular, it would undo an historic agreement among states, automakers, the federal government, and other stakeholders.”

She noted that California and over a dozen other states that have adopted California’s auto emissions plans would likely enforce the state measures, rather than deferring to the federal rule as planned. This would leave the auto industry “without the explicit nationwide uniformity that it has described as important to its business,” Jackson wrote.