EPA's permitting gauntlet

Oct. 16, 2000
What happens if the US Environmental Protection Agency targets your refinery for an investigation of compliance with the New Source Review (NSR) provisions of the Clean Air Act (CAA)?

What happens if the US Environmental Protection Agency targets your refinery for an investigation of compliance with the New Source Review (NSR) provisions of the Clean Air Act (CAA)? At least 6 corporations, including more than 30 refinery locations, have received the EPA's CAA Section 114 letter.

As survey editor, I find it occasionally necessary to work with historical data, searching for facts and figures from just a few years ago, now filed away in cabinets in various parts of the building. An NSR investigation, by comparison, is more than time-consuming. It's an overwhelming paper chase.

NSR regulation development

In 1980, the EPA issued a 20-page document that required US refiners to seek a new source review and a permit before making major expansions or modifications to existing process units. The regulation's goal was to prevent an increase in polluting air emissions.

In 1996, the EPA planned to "streamline and simplify" the refinery review selection process and predicted the new procedures would save $13 million/year in administration costs. The NSR program was subsequently included in the CAA amendments. Since the original document was released, about 4,000 pages of additional-and sometimes contradictory-restatements have been presented.

Today, the EPA Office of Air Quality Planning claims that it identifies as many as 20,000 possible sources of increased air emissions each year, but only 250 facilities apply for the required permits (OGJ, April 3, 2000, p. 29).

In December 2000, without opportunity for a proposal and comment period, the EPA will reinterpret the NSR rule again.

Obviously, capital equipment undertakings such as new reactor vessels or processing trains trigger a need for a NSR permit. Less obvious are the more common upgrading, debottlenecking, and revamp projects. Any increase in refining capacity may appear to be cause for EPA concern. And that concern translates into a 1-2 year time span from application to assignment of a permit.

Historical data

If your refinery is one of those chosen for an investigation of compliance, what can you expect?

To begin with, you will receive a certified CAA Section 114 letter from the EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. This letter will explain how and why your refining operation was selected and what you are expected to do about it.

For example, let's assume a scenario in which the NSR-specified process unit is a fluid catalytic cracking unit (FCCU). You may be asked to provide a description of the change in that specific unit's capacity. Doesn't sound unreasonable, does it?

You may also be asked to provide some or all of the following historical data, in hard copy and electronic format, on a monthly basis for every year from 1980 to 2000:

  • Crude distillation unit feed rate (b/d), feed sulfur (wt %), and API gravity.
  • FCCU feed rate (b/d), sulfur content (wt %), API gravity.
  • FCCU coke make (lb/hr).
  • FCCU regenerator air feed rate (scfd or scfm), carbon monoxide promoter, and sulfur dioxide reduction catalyst additions (lb/month).
  • Copies of all FCCU equilibrium catalyst analyst reports provided by catalyst vendors.
  • Catalytic reforming unit feed rate (b/d).
  • Sulfur recovery unit production (tons/day).

In addition, you may be asked to provide dates and descriptions of all capital improvements and copies of any summary reports of work for each turnaround on the FCCU since January 1980. Include, also, each annual air emission statement or report submitted to a state or federal government agency.

A list of studies of proposed or planned equipment for purchase, construction, repair, replacement, improvement, upgrade, expansion, physical change, or change in method of operations may be required.

Due dates

Your documentation is due in 20-40 days. Accounting, engineering, procurement, and legal departments should be called on to pull together data from computers, file cabinets, storage rooms, off-site document retrieval services, or corporate headquarters.

Requests for time extensions may result in EPA inspection group visits to your site. At presstime, several teams of EPA officials are analyzing the information received from those refineries now being investigated.

Clearly, crude prices and environmental issues regarding fuel reformulation, sulfur limits in gasoline and diesel, and Total Maxiumum Daily Load regulations require that resources be spent on strategic planning during the next few years.

However, the EPA's NSR rule demands attention today.