Opponents, Supporters of EPA Changing NSR Rules Debate Issue

Proponents and foes of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s pursuit of dramatic changes to regulations governing how electric power plants and other industrial facilities maintain facilities and still meet Clean Air Act ”new source review” rules squared-off in a quasi-debate Thursday, not surprisingly leaving neither side convinced of the validity of the other’s points.

The debate came before EPA’s Monday public hearings on its plans to modify NSR rules, something industrial owners vehemently support and environmentalists and a number of state and local regulatory authorities sharply oppose.

EPA late last year proposed a final rule to increase energy efficiency and encourage emissions reductions by trying to clarify what constitutes a modification to industrial facilities, so-called ”routine maintenance, repair and replacement,” like when power plant owners maintain plants that may or may not trigger NSR rules under the Clean Air Act.

The Bush administration’s EPA thinks that confusion over NSR, and the filing of numerous lawsuits by the government against plant owners during the Clinton years, actually harmed pollution reduction efforts by confusing plant owners on what was legal and what was illegal under NSR, preventing modernization.

Clean air groups think the Bush team is simply creating huge loopholes for plant owners to increase output and extend the lives of older facilities, producing more harmful emissions that hurt public health.

C. Boyden Gray, a lawyer, chairman of Citizens for a Sound Economy and former counsel to President George H.W. Bush, fronted the utility industry’s viewpoint that NSR needs radical alterations to clarify what it means and allow the marketplace to produce efficiencies that will drive down the amount of harmful plant pollutants.

He noted that since 1990 the levels of sulpher dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) have gone down dramatically in the ”offending” Midwest – where many older, coal-fired power plants are – and in Eastern states. The declines, Gray said, ”had nothing to do with NSR,” but rather were a result of 1990 Clean Air Act amendments and market-based cap and trade programs.

Gray lashed out at environmentalists, calling critics upset over NSR only because ”people don’t want to see reductions (in industrial emissions) come through market incentives.”

On the other side, defenders of the current NSR rule asked Gray to tell them where in the Clean Air Act EPA had the authority to change the regulations, since the agency is supposed to work for reducing and not increasing pollution.

John Walke, representing the Natural Resources Defense Council, said under the EPA modifications, state governments would lose their most effective tool to control smog, soot and toxic pollution.

Environmentalists want EPA to rescind its rule before it becomes final. They also mocked the attempt under EPA’s proposed changes to quantify through a replacement cost-based formula, the amount of maintenance work that could be done without triggering NSR.