EPA’s Permitting Guidance for Greenhouse Gases – Does It Endanger Coal?

by Marlo Lewis on November 11, 2010

in Blog

Can environmental agencies use BACT determinations to require major emitting facilities to switch fuels?

This arcane-sounding question is of great practical importance to energy consumers and the economy. It is a question addressed in EPA’s long-awaited PSD and Title V Permitting Guidance for Greenhouse Gases, posted online yesterday in Politico.

EPA’s guidance document is intended to assist permit writers and permit applicants determine what constitutes “best available control technology” (BACT) for greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting facilities. On January 2, 2011, EPA’s motor vehicle GHG emission standards will go into effect, making GHGs air pollutants “subject to regulation” under the Clean Air Act’s Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) pre-construction permitting program. Any firm planning to build or modify a large GHG-emitting facility (e.g. a coal-fired power plant, an oil refinery, a cement production facility) will first have to obtain a PSD permit from EPA or a State environmental agency.  To obtain a PSD permit, the applicant will have to demonstrate that the new or modified facility incorporates BACT by virtue of its combustion processes, work practices, technology controls, or some combination thereof.

A question that has come up time and again in discussions of EPA regulation of GHGs is whether BACT can be interpreted to require facilities to change the fuels they use. For example, could a permitting agency decide that an electric generating unit is not BACT-compliant unless the facility switches fuels from coal to natural gas, or from natural gas to a mixture of gas and wind?

Waxman-Markey died in the Senate when the public realized that cap-and-trade is a stealth energy tax.  Cap-and-trade functions as an energy tax in large part because it is designed to suppress and, ultimately, eliminate electricity production from coal, America’s most abundant and affordable electricity fuel.

If BACT can be interpreted to require fuel switching, then it can empower activist bureaucrats to implement the anti-coal agenda that the American people rejected on November 2.

Where does EPA’s guidance document stand on this critical issue? Here’s what it says:

While Step 1 [of the BACT determination process] is intended to capture a broad array of potential options for pollution control, this step of the process is not without limits. EPA has recognized that a Step 1 list of options need not necessarily include inherently lower polluting processes that would fundamentally redefine the nature of the source proposed by the permit applicant.* [p. 25]

* In re Prairie State Generating Company, 13 E.A.D. 1, 23 (EAB 2006).

EPA does not interpret the CAA to prohibit fundamentally redefining the source and has recognized that permitting authorities have the discretion to conduct a broader BACT analysis if they desire.**  The “redefining the source” issue is ultimately a question of degree that is within the discretion of the permitting authority. [p. 28]

** In re Knauf Fiber Glass, 8 E.A.D. at 136; In re Old Dominion Cooperative, 3 E.A.D. at 793.

So, although BACT options “need not necessarily include inherently lower polluting processes that would fundamentally redefine the nature of the source,” EPA “does not interpret” BACT “to prohibit fundamentally redefining the source,” leaving such decisions to the “discretion of the permitting authority.”

It would be prudent to suppose that anti-coal bureaucrats at EPA and State agencies will do whatever they think they can get away with.

Bob November 22, 2010 at 6:07 am

I read the guidance as allowing the permitting authority (EPA or state) to have great latitude in how they interpret BACT. Although BACT allows you to include and consider the cost of the emissions reduction, the $/ton of pollutant removed level that allows selection of a less expensive, and potentially more polluting, technology varies from state to state and from permitting engineer to permitting engineer. This rule completely allows BACT to be determined by whim of the permit writer.

Another cute piece of the rule: The GHG reporting rule prohibits a source that uses biogenic methane (e.g., landfill gas) to produce usuable energy from reporting the CO2 from the gas. The reporting floor is 25,000 metric tons/year (~55,100 short tons). The Tailoring Rule requires permitting for 75,000 short tons/year and requires inclusion of methane from biogenic sources. If the angency were trying to make this substantially confusing and difficult, they certainly have succeeded.

PS. Where in the CAA does one find a major source defined as 75,000 tons/year? I believe the EPA is making stuff up as they go along, and not very consistently.

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