EPA prods Congress to act by issuing rules

The Obama administration is planning curbs of greenhouse gas emissions, prodding Congress to move forward on climate change legislation.

Climate and environmental bills face an uncertain fate on Capitol Hill, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) intends to forge ahead under its existing authority by unveiling several wide-ranging new rules.

The EPA on Tuesday sent the Office of Management and Budget a rule that would “tailor” the application of new emissions curbs to the nation’s largest industrial emitters of pollutants, such as power plants, refineries and big factories.

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“EPA is moving forward independent of what is happening on Capitol Hill,” said Roger Martella, a partner at Sidley Austin LLP who was EPA’s general counsel under former President George W. Bush. “It is not going to hedge its bets. It is moving forward with its agenda.”

The White House has said its first choice is for Congress to approve a broad climate change and energy bill that would establish industrial greenhouse gas limits but provide more flexibility to business than what the EPA can do through regulations. Legislation also would be expected to provide aid to manufacturers and other businesses making the transition.

But administration officials say EPA will act under its current powers if Congress remains deadlocked.

The EPA climate rules are political fodder for both sides in the fight on Capitol Hill.

 Advocates of climate change legislation say the specter of EPA regulating under its current power is a good reason for Congress to write more flexible climate rules.

 At the same time, lawmakers including Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) have floated various bills to block EPA, claiming that regulating greenhouse gases under the existing Clean Air Act would cause economic harm.

 The climate rules are just one example of multiple EPA rules under development that would have a major impact on public policy.

 EPA plans to propose rules next month to cut emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from power plants, according to John Walke, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Those rules will be followed next year by a separate proposal to limit mercury and other air toxins from these plants, he said.

 The EPA is taking these actions because previous rules implemented by the Bush administration were vacated by the courts in 2008.

 Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and a bipartisan group of co-sponsors are pressing legislation to sharply cut power-plant emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury, but the legislative prospects are uncertain.

 “No matter what emerges from Congress this year, the Obama EPA is using existing authority to protect public health and the environment, cleaning up air pollution, water pollution and global warming pollution,” said Walke, NRDC’s clean air director.

 Other examples abound.

 In early April, EPA issued new water quality permitting guidelines aimed at curtailing pollution from future mountaintop coal mining operations in Appalachia — a policy met with cheers from environmental groups and criticism from the mining industry.

The White House is also considering an EPA proposal to create new controls on sludgy coal plant waste, which follows a major 2008 spill in Tennessee.

 Elsewhere, the agency is planning to finalize tough ozone standards in August.
Environmentalists cheered the rules when they were issued in draft form early this year, while they drew attacks from industry groups including the American Petroleum Institute.

 EPA is also preparing new hazardous air pollution requirements for industrial boilers. The boiler rule proposal is expected by the end of April under a court-imposed deadline. A host of industry groups fear that EPA’s plan will be too aggressive.

 In recent weeks, a slew of industry lobbyists have met with White House Office of Management and Budget officials to express concerns about the upcoming proposal that sets so-called maximum achievable control technology, or MACT, standards.

 “Industry groups are clearly applying political pressure in an attempt to water down the rule,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch.

 Groups and companies that have met with OMB in March or this month include the American Chemistry Council, the American Forest and Paper Association, DuPont, Exxon Mobil and others.

 Martella said the air pollution rules are important measures for regulated industries.

“While companies are focused on greenhouse gases, many are likely to say the impacts will be as significant and felt sooner from boiler MACTs and ozone NAAQS [National Ambient Air Quality Standards],” he said.