Regulating anyway

June 11, 2012
With new regulation of refinery process heaters and flares, the US Environmental Protection Agency will cut emissions of several statutory air pollutants or substances that cause them.

With new regulation of refinery process heaters and flares, the US Environmental Protection Agency will cut emissions of several statutory air pollutants or substances that cause them. This might seem like a large step toward improved air quality. It's not. The air-quality effects will be negligible. EPA imposed the regulation anyway.

EPA issued the final rule on June 1, responding to petitions to reconsider Clean Air Act standards set in 2008. Although it accommodated some concerns expressed by industry groups, its move provoked controversy. Industry representatives think the agency underestimated the costs of compliance. And they know this regulation represents just one among many, imposed or pending, all raising costs, restraining activity, and discouraging investment.

Costs high

Whatever refiners spend to comply with the new emission rules, the cost will be high in relation to likely gains in air quality. Compared with air-quality improvements already well established, the pollution cuts in prospect are not impressive.

EPA estimates that within 5 years its new refinery regulations will be lowering emissions of sulfur dioxide by 3,200 tons/year, of nitrogen oxides by 1,100 tons/year, and of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by 3,400 tons/year. SO2 and NOx cause respiratory problems. NOx also reacts with VOCs in sunlight to form ground-level ozone, also a respiratory irritant. SO2 and NOx also contribute to the formation of fine particles, another statutory pollutant linked to respiratory problems. And emissions of all of them have fallen greatly since 1980.

Against total emissions, the reductions estimated by EPA to result from the new refinery regulation are tiny. In 2010, the latest data year, emission totals were 8 million tons of SO2, 13 million tons of NOx, and 11 million tons of VOCs, according to EPA. The amounts by which those numbers are falling year by year also dwarf the new reductions. During 2000-10, average annual emission declines were 800,000 tons of SO2, 900,000 tons of NOx, and 600,000 tons of VOCs. So the new refinery rules will push existing, well-established emissions improvement by no more than 0.4%/year. And they'll have little effect on chronic noncompliance with ozone standards by large cities in sunny climates.

Recently, with US air quality overall improving steadily, EPA has leveraged regulation of pollutants no longer representing direct health risks against their ability to react with other substances to form fine particles, called PM2.5. Although concentrations of PM2.5, like those of other pollutants except ozone, fall well below national standards, EPA acts as though any level is too high. "Remarkably, the EPA now assumes that there is no level of PM2.5 below which risks to premature death cease," writes Kathleen Hartnett White of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, former chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, in a sharp new critique of EPA's scientific assessments.

Regulating dust

Asserting that PM2.5 seriously threatens health, EPA acts determined to regulate them out of the air, largely by toughening regulation of other pollutants that don't, by themselves, warrant the treatment. Because a large share of airborne PM2.5 is natural dust, this won't be easy. It surely will be expensive—and maybe unwarranted. "Although many health-effects studies do not find adverse effects at current levels of PM, the EPA concludes the fine particles still pose health risk by irritating or damaging the minute air sacs in the lungs called alveoli," writes Hartnett White. "Many toxicological studies, however, find that the natural cleaning system in the lungs removes the minute solids."

New regulation of refinery heaters and flares won't lower emissions of air pollutants and their precursors by much. And if fine particles don't pose the risk EPA says they do, health gains will be slight, at best. The agency didn't go far enough with its reconsideration of the new refinery regulation. It should have looked hard not only at how it would regulate air emissions from refinery equipment but also at whether it truly needed to do so in the first place.

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