Uproar over NSR clarification looks like opportunism

Bob Tippee

To hear environmentalists and their friends in Congress tell it, clarification by the Environmental Protection Agency of confusing emission regulations will devastate US air quality.

"BUSH ADMINISTRATION TO GUT CLEAN AIR ACT," wailed a press release from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"This is even worse than expected," moaned a "deeply saddened and outraged" Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.). "This rule is a victory for polluting power plants and devastating defeat for public health and the environment."

Nonsense. EPA on Aug. 27 simply defined "equipment replacement" under provisions of the new source review (NSR) program dealing with routine maintenance, repair, and replacement.

An outgrowth of the Clean Air Act, NSR requires builders of industrial sources of air pollution to go through a lengthy permitting process. Routine work at existing facilities generally escapes the requirement. But confusion has developed over types of work eligible for exclusion.

After a 1998 reinterpretation of NSR requirements by the Clinton administration EPA, many projects, some involving refineries, were found to be in violation of the requirements although they initially were deemed routine and excluded from permitting.

Some refinery work that snagged on the changed approach involved projects oriented to other clean-air regulations.

EPA addressed the confusion by reforming the NSR program late last year. The Aug. 27 rule applies only to equipment replacement. It allows companies to replace existing equipment without triggering NSR regulation if the cost of the new equipment doesn't exceed 20% of what it would cost to replace the entire process unit.

Before last year's reform and the new clarification, the NSR program was broken. Because of retrospective and sometimes contradictory interpretation, companies subject to the program no longer could tell how to meet its requirements.

To suggest that fixing a broken air-quality program somehow threatens air quality, when in fact air quality is improving dramatically across the country, is ludicrous. It's also deceptive.

EPA's clarification is proper and consistent with US energy and environmental interests.

The uproar it has caused looks like political opportunism. Or do some lawmakers just like to vent sadness and outrage?

(Author's e-mail: bobt@ogjonline.com)

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