For EPA’s Global Warming Rules, Will ‘Next Year’ Mean ‘Never’?

EPA is running out of time to craft carbon-emissions standards for industrial polluters beyond power plants.

RODEO, CA - JANUARY 25: Steam rises from stacks at the Conoco-Phillips refinery on January 25, 2011 in Rodeo, California. Gas prices continue to rise and have gone up 14% or $.39 a gallon over the past year. Crude oil is currently trading at just under $90 a barrell and some analysts speculate that it could skyrocket up above $150 a barrell in the coming year. 
National Journal
Ben Geman
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Ben Geman
March 11, 2014, 12:44 p.m.

EPA’s new budget plan says the agency hopes to make crit­ic­al — and con­tro­ver­sial — de­cisions about its ef­fort to reg­u­late green­house gases by the end of fisc­al 2015.

Spe­cific­ally, the budget says the agency hopes to de­term­ine wheth­er it should craft car­bon-emis­sions stand­ards for sev­er­al big in­dus­tri­al pol­lu­tion sources — not­ably re­finer­ies, but also pulp and pa­per fa­cil­it­ies, iron and steel pro­duc­tion, and few oth­er cat­egor­ies.

But if the pledges about ex­pand­ing cli­mate rules sounds fa­mil­i­ar to EPA-watch­ers, they should: The fisc­al 2014 plan said the same thing about a de­cision on the rules, and the fact that the agency has now moved these de­cisions to its 2015 budget sug­gests that de­term­in­a­tions in 2014 are prob­ably not in the cards.

Now, with the clock wind­ing down on the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, ex­perts say it’s un­clear wheth­er EPA will craft car­bon-emis­sions stand­ards for any big sta­tion­ary pol­lu­tion sources bey­ond power plants — or even if it has enough time or re­sources left to do so.

“As a prac­tic­al mat­ter, they would prob­ably need to get star­ted on the rule­mak­ing by the end of this year if they want to get new [green­house-gas] reg­u­la­tions in place for re­finer­ies or any oth­er in­dustry sec­tor be­fore they leave of­fice,” said Jeff Holmstead, who was the top EPA air pol­lu­tion of­fi­cial un­der Pres­id­ent George W. Bush and is now a part­ner at Bracewell & Gi­uliani.

“I’m pretty con­fid­ent they’re not work­ing on any­thing yet,” he said.

Here’s spe­cific­ally what EPA’s fisc­al year 2015 plan says about po­ten­tial rules for re­finer­ies and a small hand­ful of oth­er in­dus­tri­al cat­egor­ies: The agency in 2015 will “per­form ana­lyses and plans to make de­term­in­a­tions to ad­dress wheth­er reg­u­la­tion of GHG emis­sions from such lis­ted source cat­egor­ies is war­ran­ted as re­sources al­low, in­clud­ing con­tinu­ation of activ­it­ies in­volving the elec­tri­city gen­er­at­ing sec­tor.”

But get­ting from “plans to make de­term­in­a­tions” to ac­tu­ally reg­u­lat­ing re­quires EPA to cov­er lots of ter­rain. Craft­ing Clean Air Act rules is a slow, re­source-in­tens­ive pro­cess.

Once the agency has de­term­ined it will craft a rule, the pro­cess of writ­ing and pro­pos­ing it, tak­ing com­ment, and com­plet­ing it can take years. And for ma­jor rules, court chal­lenges al­most in­ev­it­ably fol­low.

“I would be pretty sur­prised if they try to do an­oth­er [green­house-gas] rule be­fore they leave of­fice,” said Holmstead, whose firm lob­bies on be­half of power com­pan­ies, re­finers, and oth­er in­dus­tries.

Power plants are by far the biggest sta­tion­ary source of car­bon emis­sions. Re­finer­ies rank second.

EPA has been fo­cus­ing heav­ily on craft­ing stand­ards for ex­ist­ing power plants, which the agency in­tends to pro­pose in June and com­plete a year later. The agency is also work­ing to com­plete fi­nal emis­sions stand­ards for new power plants.

If Pres­id­ent Obama is suc­ceeded by a Re­pub­lic­an, that could very well shut the door for years on car­bon-emis­sions stand­ards for in­dus­tri­al sources be­sides power plants.

Holmstead es­tim­ates that EPA would need to com­plete a fi­nal re­finery rule by Oc­to­ber 2016 to avoid hav­ing a sub­sequent ad­min­is­tra­tion with­draw it. He also notes that EPA has oth­er big-tick­et items on its plate, such as the re­view of ozone stand­ards that’s man­dated by stat­ute.

In 2010, EPA reached a set­tle­ment with a num­ber of states and en­vir­on­ment­al groups to set stand­ards for power plants and re­finer­ies. The power plant rules are pro­ceed­ing, al­beit more slowly than EPA had ini­tially pledged.

But the re­finery rules have be­come a big ques­tion mark.

“We are talk­ing to all kinds of folks about what [the power-plant rule] might mean for oth­er sta­tion­ary sources, but, frankly, this [power-plant rule] is where my fo­cus is and will be,” said EPA Ad­min­is­trat­or Gina Mc­Carthy, speak­ing to re­port­ers at an en­ergy con­fer­ence in Hou­s­ton last week.

EPA, to be sure, is do­ing more on cli­mate in Obama’s second term than the power-plant rule. For in­stance, the agency is craft­ing the next round of emis­sions stand­ards for big trucks.

But when it comes to car­bon emis­sions stand­ards for big sta­tion­ary in­dus­tri­al pol­luters, power plants are the big show — and maybe the only one.

Mi­chael Liv­er­more of the In­sti­tute for Policy In­teg­rity, an en­vir­on­ment­al group af­fil­i­ated with New York Uni­versity’s law school, said the fact that the clock is run­ning out on emis­sions stand­ards bey­ond power plants is a “con­cern.”

But what’s cru­cial, he said, is for EPA to fo­cus on cre­at­ing car­bon emis­sions stand­ards for power plants that will with­stand chal­lenges in the courts and on Cap­it­ol Hill, and he noted that the power plant rules are a high pri­or­ity for en­vir­on­ment­al­ists.

Those EPA rules are a center­piece of Pres­id­ent Obama’s cli­mate agenda.

“My guess is they see the re­finer­ies … as icing on the cake,” said Liv­er­more, who was the found­ing ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or and is now seni­or ad­viser to the in­sti­tute. “But they mostly want to make sure the cake doesn’t fall apart.”

What We're Following See More »
Morning Consult Poll: Clinton Decisively Won Debate
2 days ago

"According to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, the first national post-debate survey, 43 percent of registered voters said the Democratic candidate won, compared with 26 percent who opted for the Republican Party’s standard bearer. Her 6-point lead over Trump among likely voters is unchanged from our previous survey: Clinton still leads Trump 42 percent to 36 percent in the race for the White House, with Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson taking 9 percent of the vote."

Trump Draws Laughs, Boos at Al Smith Dinner
2 days ago

After a lighthearted beginning, Donald Trump's appearance at the Al Smith charity dinner in New York "took a tough turn as the crowd repeatedly booed the GOP nominee for his sharp-edged jokes about his rival Hillary Clinton."

McMullin Leads in New Utah Poll
3 days ago

Evan McMul­lin came out on top in a Emer­son Col­lege poll of Utah with 31% of the vote. Donald Trump came in second with 27%, while Hillary Clin­ton took third with 24%. Gary John­son re­ceived 5% of the vote in the sur­vey.

Quinnipiac Has Clinton Up by 7
3 days ago

A new Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity poll finds Hillary Clin­ton lead­ing Donald Trump by seven percentage points, 47%-40%. Trump’s “lead among men and white voters all but” van­ished from the uni­versity’s early Oc­to­ber poll. A new PPRI/Brook­ings sur­vey shows a much bigger lead, with Clinton up 51%-36%. And an IBD/TIPP poll leans the other way, showing a vir­tu­al dead heat, with Trump tak­ing 41% of the vote to Clin­ton’s 40% in a four-way match­up.

Trump: I’ll Accept the Results “If I Win”
3 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.