NSPS, CAMR, CATR, BACT, PSD, UGH (The Last One’s Not an Acronym)

Back in my public policy days, there was much discussion of “muddling through.” When I look at recent developments on the climate and air regulation front, I just see a muddle. First, we have Gina McCarthy, saying that EPA wants to walk before it runs, and assuring utility executives that New Source Performance Standards for GHG emissions will not have a “dramatic effect.” McCarthy further said that EPA will take a “common sense approach,” comparing it to EPA’s approach to the GHG BACT guidance, which she described as “not overly ambitious.”

At the same time, the first PSD permit for GHG has been issued, to Nucor Corporation’s direct reduced iron manufacturing facility in Louisiana. While praising Nucor for utilizing DRI technology, which apparently generates lower GHG emissions than plants utilizing coke, and while acknowledging that this was one of the first GHG PSD applications, EPA raised two concerns that may be troubling to permittees. First, the permit would require a package of good combustion practices, but did not include a numerical limit for GHG emissions. EPA commented that the permit had not justified why a numerical limit would not be feasible. 

Second, EPA noted that the permit did not provide a basis for the conclusion that carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, would not be feasible for this project. EPA’s comments referred to EPA’s December 2010 GHG BACT guidance as noting that CCS is generally available for iron and steel manufacturing facilities.

To EPA, the BACT guidance may be common sense. However, to the regulated community, it creates uncertainty. Uncertainty means risk. Risk means costs. Will EPA insist on numerical standards? What are those standards going to be? Based on the EPA’s comments regarding CCS, it appears that EPA may be intending to treat the GHG BACT guidance as having the force of regulation. If so, we are stuck with the worst of both worlds – the absence of the protection provided by notice and comment rulemaking and the absence of the flexibility in utilizing guidance, rather than regulation. 

Moreover, EPA does not appear to understand the scope of the uncertainty created by such actions. EPA may allow the Nucor facility to proceed without CCS, once the permit application is amended to include an explanation of the infeasibility of CCS. However, there is no point in requiring such an analysis unless there is some possibility that CCS may be required. The regulated community – and state regulators – are left wondering under what circumstances CCS would be considered feasible. The same is true with the analysis of coal and natural gas. It’s difficult to read the BACT guidance without concluding that, under some circumstances, BACT for coal might be gas. However, we don’t know yet what those circumstance would be. 

On the other side of the aisle, as it were, we have the muddle that is Congressional opposition to EPA GHG regulation. Fred Upton, Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has described the NSPS standards as a “backdoor attempt to implement their failed job-killing cap-and-trade scheme.” Sadly, I only wish it were so. He seems to think that describing NSPS standards as a “cap-and-trade” scheme is the worst kind of insult. However, he’s got it backwards. First, unlike the cap-and-trade plan, the NSPS regulations are required under the existing Clean Air Act as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA. Second, cap-and-trade was proposed precisely because it has been demonstrated to be an economically efficient way to attain pollution reductions. It’s really only fair to describe it as job-killing if you don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change. (I’m too tired to go there today.) If Congress doesn’t want EPA to kill jobs, then give it the tools to regulate as efficiently as possible. 

Moreover, as noted in the Daily Environment Report, while Congress is up in arms about EPA climate rules, Congress is extremely unlikely to limit EPA’s authority to issue the Clean Air Mercury Rule and Clean Air Transport Rule, both of which are going to have more significant impact on power generators and electricity prices than GHG NSPS.

Occupying the middle ground – if not the muddle ground – is Senator Rockefeller, attempting the most delicate of balancing acts. While still complaining about EPA’s veto of the mountaintop removal permit for the Spruce No. 1 mine and backing legislation which would delay EPA’s GHG rules for two years, Rockefeller criticized “EPA-bashing.” Rockefeller’s view is apparently just that coal is important, coal cannot survive serious GHG regulation without CCS, and CCS requires more time. We’ll see how his dance plays back home and with the Chamber of Commerce. I thought that we are now against backing particular technological solutions and I certainly believe that sooner or later, we’re just going to have to bite the bullet and put a price on carbon.

For now, though, I guess we’re just muddling through.

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