Northeast states, gas producers unhappy with expected revisit of air rules

By the OGJ Online Staff

WASHINGTON, DC, Jan. 9, 2002 – Nine Northeast states Tuesday warned the White House it will sue the US Environmental Protection Agency, if it moves forward with an expected plan to revise air pollution standards for power plants and refiners.

Some gas producers are also said to be unhappy with the proposal because it could encourage utilities to expand coal-fired plants, which burn less expensive coal, instead of building gas-powered ones.

The attorneys general of New York, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont said efforts by President George W. Bush to retool the New Source Review program would increase airborne lung diseases in their states.

Environmental groups and some scientists blame much of the Northeast’s elevated smog levels on older coal-fired generation plants. The claim smokestack pollution from those generators travels from the Midwest to the Northeast by wind currents.

Another group uncomfortable with the Bush Administration’s position are some domestic gas producers. “If EPA opts to relax rules on coal-fired generation, there will be less demand for gas-powered generation, and that an important growth market,” noted one industry lobbyist who represents independents and majors who explore for gas in the Lower 48.

Refiners and many electric utilities, however, have a completely different view.

They say the Clinton administration enforced NSR rules too aggressively. They allege EPA’s interpretation of the rule discouraged even routine maintenance from being performed. Environmental groups and top administration officials, former EPA Administrator Carol Browner, and Asst. Atty. Gen. Lois Schiffer disagreed, saying industry often expanded capacity or made dramatic changes to plants without going through the necessary review process.

Changes afoot
That, in turn, often meant that regulators could not ensure air pollution guidelines were still being met. EPA, often in conjunction with the Justice Department filed a number of lawsuits, many of which were later settled.

Only a few months after Bush took office in 2001, it was clear there could be changes afoot. A White House energy blueprint overseen by Vice Pres. Dick Cheney offered the first clues. It suggested NSR needed to be retooled to avoid production constraints in the power and oil sectors.

EPA conducted a number of hearings around the country on what approach should be taken to NSR. Later in the year, the White House Office of Management and Budget said it wanted to review and possibly rescind NSR (OGJ Online, Jan. 4, 2001).

EPA is expected to address both the energy production question mentioned in the blueprint and offer suggestions on how NSR can be made more efficient, government sources said. But that’s still not good enough for environmental groups and Northeast officials.

“We are asking the federal government to be fair to New England, to do the right thing by the environment, and to enforce its own laws even against big business interests,” said Rhode Island Atty. Gen. Sheldon Whitehouse.

Congress also is expected to tackle the issue later this year when it comes back from a holiday recess Jan. 24.

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