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.