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NJ Daily / POWER PLAY

Navigating EPA’s Regulatory Maze

The agency is rolling out a host of clean-air rules that are igniting political battles. Here’s a primer.

Enforcer: EPA’s Lisa Jackson.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

photo of Amy Harder
September 6, 2011

Industry and business lobbyists call the Environmental Protection Agency’s looming clean-air rules a “train wreck.” Health and environmental experts say that tighter regulations are long overdue, and they blame delays during the George W. Bush administration for the regulatory pileup coming to a head over the next few months. Both sides are partially right. EPA is expected to roll out a host of costly regulations that could hurt the dirtiest, most polluting corners of the economy, such as the coal industry. But federal court intervention or the Bush administration’s delays—not any grand design in President Obama’s EPA—are to blame for the timing of the new regulations.

“Some may question why EPA is undertaking so many regulatory actions at once,” the Congressional Research Service notes in a July 11 study quietly published in response to widespread congressional concern over EPA’s clean-air rules. “But it is the decades of regulatory inaction that led to this point that strike other observers.” The report says that all of the major clean-air rules, other than EPA’s climate-change regulations, were initially proposed in earlier administrations—most under Bush—or were rejected by a federal court.

Here’s a rundown of the four major rules expected to be unveiled or to influence congressional debate in coming months.

 

Greenhouse-Gas Regulations

EPA plans to issue the first-ever rules controlling carbon emissions from electricity-generating power plants by Sept. 26, and for oil refineries by December. Final rules for power plants are expected by May 26, 2012, and for oil refineries in November 2012. These are the most politically explosive rules EPA is issuing because they regulate the pollution that causes climate change, a topic that has morphed into a political issue for Republican presidential candidates. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and President Obama have steadfastly backed the rules despite calls from the GOP and from moderate corners of the Democratic Party to delay issuing the standards. Republicans tried but failed to defund the EPA’s carbon program during this year’s government-shutdown brawl. Expect another intense battle over the regulations this month: EPA’s Sept. 26 deadline runs up against the end-of-month deadline for Congress to pass its fiscal 2012 budget.

Mercury Standards

Lobbyists in the electric-power sector are most concerned about EPA’s rule slashing mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants, which the agency says it will finalize by Nov. 16. House GOP leaders will remind Obama that he conceded in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, last month that the new regulations would cost power companies between $10 billion and $11 billion a year. But Republicans are unlikely to hamstring this rule in any significant way, given mercury’s well-known adverse health effects and the administration’s commitment to the rule. The regulation of the power sector’s mercury emissions was originally required by the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. Obama’s EPA is promulgating these rules now in response to a federal court’s rejection of a cap-and-trade program created to cut the emissions during the Bush administration.

Cross-State Air-Pollution Rule

This rule replaces the Clean Air Interstate Rule, Bush’s major clean-air initiative, which a federal court rejected in 2008, ordering EPA to replace it with a new program. Obama’s EPA did that and finalized the rule on July 6, but not without the expected pushback from the coal-powered electric sector. This rule, like the Bush-era regulation, will control air pollution like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide that causes air-quality problems in Eastern states downwind from polluting states. EPA says it would require “27 states to significantly improve air quality by reducing power-plant emissions that cross state lines and contribute to ozone and fine-particle pollution in other states.” EPA expects this to cost the power sector $2.4 billion a year. While this rule is already finalized and has relatively low costs, House Republicans will cite it when pushing legislation that would require EPA to study the cumulative cost of all regulations before finalizing anything.

Smog Standard

Caving to industry and political pressure, Obama last week directed EPA Administrator Jackson to abandon her plans to tighten the nation’s smog (ground-level ozone) standard until the agency’s regular five-year review cycle in 2013. Jackson indicated in 2009 that she would issue a stricter standard because of lawsuits against the current, Bush-era acceptable level. Health and environmental groups quickly signaled they would revive legal challenges to the Bush-era standard, which had been on hold pending Obama’s decision. The ground-level ozone standard defines what EPA considers to be clean air. It doesn’t directly limit pollution; rather, it sets in motion a lengthy and expensive process where counties and states must determine whether they’re in compliance and implement plans to meet the new standard if they are not. Jackson’s proposed tougher standard had been expected to cost localities and states between $19 billion and $90 billion a year to comply. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, said he was “very concerned” with Obama’s decision and intends to hold a hearing soon on the administration’s actions. Republicans will cite Obama’s reversal on this rule as a precedent for withdrawing other potentially costly EPA regulations.

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