EPA on Unclean Energy: "No Source Review"

The Bush Administration's rollback of New Source Review could guarantee more dirty air for years to come.

Americans who enjoy breathing had better hope the clean energy industry takes off with a vengeance, because the Bush administration appears intent on doing everything possible to keep dirty energy cheap and easy to produce.

Last Thursday, June 13, the so-called Environmental Protection Agency announced proposed new regulations intended to "improve" its New Source Review (NSR) program, a set of rules requiring power plants and refineries to install modern emission reduction equipment whenever they make significant upgrades or repairs to their facilities. Industry had long complained that NSR requirements, in place since the federal Clean Air Act of 1970, were too burdensome and expensive. But environmentalists charge that the EPA's attempt at "improvement" is actually a rollback that will let companies dodge the Act. The proposed rules remain subject to public discussion, and ultimate approval rests with Congress. If the new rules do take effect, they may take as much as three years to implement -- in the meantime, allowing long-standing EPA actions to languish against companies suspected of violations under the old rules.

"NSR is a valuable program in many respects, but the need for reform is clear and has broad-based support," said EPA Administrator Christie Whitman in the agency's announcement. "Our review clearly established that some aspects of the NSR program have deterred companies from implementing projects that would increase energy efficiency and decrease air pollution."

This "broad-based support" -- "overwhelming support," read another part of the EPA announcement -- was clearly not coming from environmental organizations. "The most sweeping assault on the Clean Air Act in its 30 year history" was how John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council described it. Texas green groups were especially concerned since the Lone Star State plays such a key role in U.S. energy production, hosting a disproportionate share of the nation's refineries. "This is especially bad news for Texas," said Jim Marston, the Texas regional director of Environmental Defense. "The changes announced today clear the way for more air pollution across Texas and further reduce the polluters' accountability to the public. The EPA has changed 'new source review' to 'no source review.'"

In what seems a merely symbolic move, Luke Metzger, the Texas field organizer for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, called on Texas Attorney General John Cornyn "to join with 12 other attorneys general around the country that have come out publicly against this attack on the enforcement of our environmental laws." Cornyn's agreement seems unlikely at best, since he is the GOP nominee to carry on the legacy of outgoing Sen. Phil Gramm (and carry the water -- or in this case, blow the smoke -- for the Bush administration).

Back in December, when enviros first started spreading word that the rollback was being considered, Texas Campaign for the Environment's Robin Schneider told the Chronicle that, "In Texas, it's largely the refineries that appear to have been violating [New Source Review rules]. Companies like ExxonMobil, Phillips Petroleum, and Citgo are getting off the hook. Coincidentally, they are all large Bush contributors. From our point of view, this is largely payback."

The rollback has strong ramifications here in Central Texas. Alcoa's Rockdale facility, the Sandow power plant that powers its aluminum smelter, has been cited for potential NSR violations that the EPA and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission allege occurred in the late 1980s. Alcoa made improvements in 1986 that the company called "routine," but regulators now say they were "substantial" -- thereby triggering the requirement that the company install the best available pollution controls. Alcoa is currently disputing the charges. EPA and TNRCC statistics show that the plant is one of the most heavily polluting facilities in the state, and also one of the major sources of toxic emissions in the Austin area.

The EPA maintains that, despite the proposed rollback, it will continue to prosecute currently active regulatory actions. Environmentalists scoffed at this assurance. "If Congress today were to declare heroin possession legal," asked David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council, "how many pending heroin possession cases do you think district attorneys would continue to prosecute?"

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