EPA proposes easing air pollution permitting process

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) moved to finalize a rule Thursday that would ease the air pollution permitting process for certain power plants and manufacturers.

Since the early days of the Trump administration, the EPA has argued the process for obtaining permits under the Clean Air Act, known as New Source Review (NSR), is too burdensome.

The agency's proposal seeks to make a regulation out of a 2018 memo from former EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA employees push 'bill of rights' to protect scientific integrity EPA's independent science board questions underpinnings of numerous agency rollbacks Overnight Energy: Rate of new endangered species listings falls | EPA approves use of 'cyanide bombs' to protect livestock | Watchdog says EPA didn't conduct required analyses MORE that has already been challenged in court by environmental groups.

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The Sierra Club said the proposed rule would allow “some of the wealthiest industries in our country to avoid cleaning up their air emissions instead of installing modern pollution controls on their dirty facilities.”

EPA argues it will help ease the process for facilities looking to install new equipment. 

The NSR process at the crux of the proposed regulation kicks in both for new facilities and when power plants install new equipment or make changes that would significantly increase air pollution.

The debate between the EPA and environmentalists largely centers on how much pollution must be factored in when weighing changes at a power plant. Whether or not a plant has to install pollution controls hinges on that calculation. 

Environmentalists say the law requires looking at the plant as a whole, including all the ways a facility decreases and increases pollution through its operations. 

John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the EPA proposal weighs the increased pollution from one change against all the other decreases in the plant — something that ignores that net pollution may go up.

“You can’t cherry-pick the decreases because it’s allowing even greater increases to escape control,” he said, thus leading to more pollution. “And that’s really the point of this regulation, to allow greater increases to escape control.”

He gave the example of installing a new boiler at a plant. The new technology might be more energy efficient, but if the boiler is run more often than the old one, it will still produce more pollution.

The EPA pushed back against Walke’s assertion.

“Today’s proposal is an important step towards President TrumpDonald John TrumpKaine: Obama called Trump a 'fascist' during 2016 campaign Kaine: GOP senators should 'at least' treat Trump trial with seriousness of traffic court Louise Linton, wife of Mnuchin, deletes Instagram post in support of Greta Thunberg MORE’s goal of reforming the elements of NSR that regularly discouraged facilities from upgrading and deploying the latest energy efficient technologies,” EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy: Critics question data behind new Trump water rule | Groups seek more time to comment on Trump environmental rollback | EPA under scrutiny over backlog of toxic waste cleanups Critics question data used in rule replacing Obama-era waterway protections Overnight Energy: Trump issues rule replacing Obama-era waterway protections | Pelosi slams new rule as 'an outrageous assault' | Trump water policy exposes sharp divides MORE said in a release. “By simplifying the permitting process and implementing a common-sense interpretation of our NSR rules, we will remove a major obstacle to the construction of cleaner and more efficient facilities.”

But Walke said calling the changes “upgrades” ignores that they cause pollution. 

“The EPA and industry like to call them upgrades and efficiency improvements cause that sounds nice and sounds like things we should be doing, but what that masks is that they are all activities that increase air pollution significantly.”