EPA Requires Fenceline Monitoring of Refinery Emissions

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By Patrick Ambrosio

Sept. 29 — Petroleum refineries will be required to install monitors to measure fenceline concentrations of benzene, one of a series of new requirements established by the Environmental Protection Agency Sept. 29.

The fenceline monitoring requirements are included in a final rule that updates national hazardous air pollution standards that apply to refineries, which also will be required to improve the efficiency of flares and comply with new emissions standards for delayed cokers.

The EPA estimated the final rule (RIN 2060-AQ75), once fully implemented in 2018, will reduce emissions of benzene, xylene and other hazardous air pollutants by 5,200 tons per year. The agency also estimated the rule will cut emissions of volatile organic compounds, a precursor to the formation of ground-level ozone, by 50,000 tons per year.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters during a conference call that the rule takes advantage of new technology to significantly reduce emissions while improving refinery operations.

“This rule is all about operating efficiently,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy said the fenceline monitoring requirements will “prevent, not just control” fugitive emissions of toxic air pollutants. Additionally, data from the monitors will be publicly accessible through a new database that the EPA will maintain, creating a “kind of neighborhood watch” for refinery air pollution, McCarthy said.

The updated standards apply to 142 petroleum refineries in the U.S. and will improve air quality for the 6.1 million people who live within three miles of a petroleum refinery, the EPA said. The agency estimated that refinery operators, including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp., will need to make $283 million in capital investments to comply with the updated standards. The agency also projected that the industry would need to spend about $63 million annually to ensure compliance with the final revised standards.

The agency said in the rule that the overall economic effects of the rule should be minimal for both the refining industry and consumers.

Industry Welcomes Flaring Changes 

The American Petroleum Institute, which previously raised concerns that the EPA had significantly underestimated the cost of the November 2014 proposed version of the refinery rule, said in a Sept. 29 statement that the agency made “substantial improvements” to the regulation.

The API said in comments that the proposed version of the refinery rule could have cost refineries more than $20 billion. The industry trade group now projects that the regulations could cost refiners as much as $1 billion.

Bob Greco, downstream group director for the API, told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail that the proposal would have required the industry to conduct “hundreds” of new flares at refineries, which would have cost billions of dollars and significantly increased greenhouse gas emissions from the sector.

“EPA reviewed industry data, and in the final rule EPA instead is implementing work practices to improve existing flare operations, which minimizes huge added costs and GHG emissions increases,” Greco said.

The agency initially proposed to prevent the venting of pressure release devices to the atmosphere, but conducted an analysis that found at least one new flare per facility would need to be installed to handle releases from the devices. Instead the EPA established work practice standards that will reduce the magnitude and frequency of pressure release devices and emergency flaring events without the negative effects associated with the installation of more flares.

The agency's final rule requires flares to operate with “no visible emissions” and to comply with flare-tip velocity requirements when flare vent gas flow is below the smokeless capacity of the flare, rather than at all times, as was proposed. The EPA set work-practice standards related to visible emissions and velocity limits when the gas flow is above the smokeless capacity of the flare.

Greco said API is still reviewing the 745-page final rule and did not comment on provisions beyond flaring requirements.

Chet Thompson, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, issued a Sept. 29 statement that criticized the EPA for requiring refinery operators to install “expensive new emissions controls that provide little incremental health benefits.”

Thompson noted that the EPA's residual risk review of the sector concluded that refinery emissions fall “well under the significance level” for chronic risk, a finding that he said demonstrates past improvements have been effective.

“AFPM will be reviewing this rule and our next move will be dictated by our findings,” Thompson said.

Shorter Implementation for Monitoring 

The agency agreed to review its refinery standards and issue its final decision on whether revisions were warranted in order to settle a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Integrity Project and other advocacy groups that challenge the agency's failure to meet a statutory review deadline under the Clean Air Act (Air All. Houston v. McCarthy, D.D.C., No. 12-1607, motion filed, 1/13/14.

Earthjustice issued a Sept. 29 statement on behalf of those advocacy groups that was generally supportive of the EPA's final rule.

Lisa Garcia, Earthjustice's vice president for healthy communities, said the rule contains several new health protections that will benefit communities that live near refineries.

“EPA's standards will give many communities a first look at how much cancer-causing benzene local refineries are releasing into the air, along with other important new health protections,” Garcia said. “This is a true legacy that this administration can be proud of.”

The EPA actually shortened the amount of time that refineries will have to meet the new fenceline monitoring provisions from three years in the proposal to two years in the final rule.

Sparsh Khandeshi, staff attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 29 that the EPA should be applauded for shortening that implementation timeline given that communities have been asking for some sort of fenceline monitoring at refineries for about a decade. The monitors required by the EPA are “very simple” to set up and relatively inexpensive, Khandeshi said.

“We don't think it's a significant burden on industry,” he said.

No Real-Time Monitoring 

The environmental groups, which also included the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Air Alliance Houston, did criticize the EPA for not requiring refineries to install monitors that would provide real-time information on fenceline concentrations of benzene. Instead, refinery operators are required to collect data from the monitors once every two weeks, with refineries that consistently stay below the regulation's emissions limits allowed to conduct even less frequent monitoring.

Several organizations that commented on the refinery proposal, including the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, urged the EPA to require active, real-time monitoring for refineries.

Janet McCabe, EPA acting assistant administrator for air and radiation, told reporters Sept. 29 that the agency spent a lot of time considering different types of monitoring technology. The technology selected by the EPA is able to detect “very low levels” of benzene that cannot be recorded by other monitors, she said.

McCabe said the EPA acknowledges that technology is advancing, so the rule will accommodate “improvements and advancements” in air monitors.

Changes on Relief Devices 

Khandeshi said the Environmental Integrity Project was pleased that the EPA had maintained proposed emissions limits for delayed cokers and requirements that refinery operators actively monitor flaring operations. Those provisions will help achieve significant reductions of refinery emissions, he said.

But Khandeshi said his group was “slightly dismayed” that the EPA did not follow through with its proposed prohibition on emissions releases from pressure release devices.

“We believe that it is cost-effective and feasible for facilities to comply with a blanket prohibition,” Khandeshi said.

The EPA did set a hard limit of no more than three events in three years per pressure release device or flare. McCabe said that after that hard limit of three events is reached, any subsequent event would qualify as a violation of the Clean Air Act.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Ambrosio in Washington at pambrosio@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com