EPA Proposes Emissions Rules to Control, Monitor Air Toxics From Petroleum Refineries

By Patrick Ambrosio  

May 15 — Air toxics emissions from petroleum refinery flaring and other operations would be limited under proposed standards announced by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The proposed rule, signed May 15 by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, would revise emission control requirements for flares, storage tanks and coking units at petroleum refineries and require monitoring around refineries to ensure that neighboring communities aren't being exposed to hazardous air pollution.

The proposal also would set maximum achievable control technology standards for delayed coking units, which the agency described as a “significant” unregulated source of hazardous pollutant emissions at refineries.

The EPA said it anticipates the proposal will have a “minimal” economic effect on the refining industry. The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute both released statements following EPA's announcement questioning whether the costs associated with the proposal are justified by the expected reductions in air toxics emissions.

The EPA agreed to review and possibly revise its air toxic standards for petroleum refineries by May 15 to settle a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Integrity Project and other advocacy groups after the agency missed a statutory deadline under the Clean Air Act to review the refinery standards (Air Alliance Houston v. McCarthy, D.D.C., No. 12-1607, motion filed 1/13/14).

Under that settlement, the EPA has until April 17, 2015, to finalize the rulemaking.

‘Significant' Reductions Expected

The proposal would cover all operating petroleum refineries in the U.S.

The EPA said there are currently 142 large and seven small refineries in the U.S. Companies that operate refineries in the U.S. include ConocoPhillips Co., Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp.

Eric Schaeffer, executive director for the Environmental Integrity Project and former director of the EPA's Office of Civil Enforcement, told Bloomberg BNA May 15 that he was pleased that the proposal addresses emissions from flaring, which he said can be greater than is usually assumed.

Schaeffer said that the combustion efficiency of flaring is typically estimated to be about 98 percent. However, a lot of times that number can be between 85 percent and 90 percent, meaning that additional gas escapes instead of being burned up during flaring, he said.

The revised standards for flaring and storage tanks could result in “significant” emission reductions at low cost, according to Schaeffer.

The EPA estimates that the proposed rule would reduce emissions of hazardous air pollutants such as benzene and xylene by an estimated 5,600 tons per year.

Actual Reductions Could Be Higher

The agency noted in a supporting document that the actual emissions reductions could be “significantly higher” due to uncertainty in estimated reductions associated with new operational requirements on flaring intended to ensure that waste gases are properly destroyed.

“The common-sense steps we are proposing will protect the health of families who live near refineries and will provide them with important information about the quality of the air they breathe,” McCarthy said in a statement.

The proposal also would reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds by about 52,000 tons per year, according to EPA estimates. The proposed control requirements also would result in an estimated 670,000 metric ton reduction in carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions through reduced methane emissions.

‘Unprecedented' Requirements

Charles T. Drevna, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, said the proposed rule would establish “unprecedented” requirements on refineries, including the installation of technology to monitor air concentrations around facilities.

“EPA's one-size-fits-all approach to this monitoring will require every facility in the United States, regardless of risk, to install monitoring equipment throughout the facility,” Drevna said. “We continue to be supportive of rules that are cost-effective and provide substantial health benefits; unfortunately this rule does not accomplish either of these goals.”

The proposed rule would require industry monitoring of air concentrations of benzene around the fenceline perimeter of refineries. The results of that monitoring would be made available to the public, according to the EPA.

Industry Expects ‘Enormous' Costs

Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement that the proposed refinery rule has a “high price tag” for industry.

“With this proposal, EPA adds to the list of new regulations impacting refineries that come with enormous costs but questionable environmental benefits,” he said.

The EPA conducted a national economic impact analysis of the proposed rule, concluding that all refinery operators will incur annual compliance costs of “much less” than 1 percent of their sales.

The agency estimates the proposed rule will result in annual costs of $42.4 million per year for the private sector. That estimate doesn't include any corrective actions associated with the fenceline monitoring program, which the agency notes would result in additional costs but achieve additional emission reductions.

“The overall economic impact of this proposed rule should be minimal for the refining industry and its consumers,” the EPA said.

States Welcome Proposed Monitoring

Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, told Bloomberg BNA that the proposal will begin to address “serious issues” related to refinery emissions. He said state agencies welcome the proposal to require facilities to monitor toxic pollution levels at their fencelines and take appropriate steps to reduce emissions.

“The public deserves a right to know whether the air they breathe is safe,” he said.

Becker said a typical refinery facilities has “hundreds” of potential emissions points, many of which he classified as “fugitive” because they don't emanate from a specific stack. He noted that the proposed rule would require monitoring of benzene, a known carcinogen that also is linked to neurological problems.

Schaeffer of the Environmental Integrity Project said the proposed monitoring is a “creative approach” that is already in place at some refineries, including a refinery in Whiting, Ind., that is operated by BP.

“The idea of having something to meter air quality at the fenceline for toxics is really helpful,” he said.

Schaeffer noted that the monitoring data would be “even more helpful” if they were easily accessible to the public on the Internet, an issue he indicated the Environmental Integrity Project will raise during the public comment period on the proposal.

Public Meetings on Proposal

The EPA said it will open a 60-day public comment period on the proposed rule after it is published in the Federal Register.

The EPA also is planning two public hearings, one near Houston and one near Los Angeles, to discuss the proposal.

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

A prepublication copy of the 813-page proposed rule is available at http://www.epa.gov/ttn/atw/petrefine/20140515fr.pdf.

An EPA fact sheet on the proposal is available at http://www.epa.gov/ttn/atw/petrefine/20140515factsheet.pdf.