Is NSR Enforcement A Subterfuge For a Carbon Policy — Or Just a Happy Coincidence?

Last month, I noted that, in the absence of comprehensive climate legislation, U.S. carbon policy would be a mish-mash of several elements – including more NSR enforcement. In fact, Phillip Brooks, director of EPA’s Air Enforcement Division, had just told an ALI/ABA forum that EPA’s NSR enforcement initiative is alive and well and he predicted more closures of old coal plants as a result of EPA’s NSR enforcement. Earlier this month, proving that Brooks meant what he said, the United States sued Ameren Corporation, alleging NSR violations at Ameren’s Rush Island facility in Festus, Missouri.

amerenrushislandpromo 280Apparently, I am not the only person who has noticed the connection between NSR enforcement and efforts to make life generally more difficult for coal plants. (Perhaps Mr. Brooks should not have been so explicit in his ALI/ABA remarks.) This week, Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt wrote to Lisa Jackson, criticizing the Ameren enforcement action and describing it as “another backdoor method used by the EPA to broadly penalize the use of coal in the United States.”

Blunt also criticized the “tsunami” of regulations by EPA that will increase the cost of coal-fired electricity generation. We had previously noted the Credit Suisse report which predicted the closure of more than 50 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity. Blunt referred to a study by the North Electric Reliability Corporation which made a similar prediction.

As my readers know, I dislike the NSR program and the enforcement initiative. I do think that many of these projects, often 15, 20, or 25  or more years ago, truly were thought routine, even if EPA may be able to persuade a court that they were not “Routine Maintenance” within the meaning of the regulations. The NSR program is certainly not a cost-effective way to regulate. However, NSR is part of the statute, EPA believes in it, and the case law is, from EPA’s perspective, at worst ambiguous and at best favorable. I expect that EPA would be pursuing many of these cases, even if climate change were not an issue and CO2 not considered a problem.

Is EPA sad that its NSR enforcement has the collateral impact of making coal less economic so that small coal-fired plants retire early, thus reducing GHG emissions? I doubt it. Does the climate change issue increase EPA’s enthusiasm? Perhaps so. The question is whether this added motivation is relevant. EPA’s intent may not be relevant to the courts, but it certainly looks as though it is relevant to Congress.

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