McCarthy's 2015 EPA Agenda Topped By Rules on Power Plants, Water, Methane

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By Anthony Adragna

Jan. 16 — The Environmental Protection Agency in 2015 will finalize regulations on carbon emissions from power plants and the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act, and it will propose emissions rules for heavy-duty vehicles and methane from certain oil and gas operations, Administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters Jan. 16.

McCarthy acknowledged the Republican-led Congress would likely target many of the regulations through the appropriations process, but she expressed confidence in the White House’s pledged support for agency actions and said she would continue her regulatory efforts.

“EPA has always had budget challenges, as every federal agency has, but we’ll continue to do our jobs,” McCarthy said. “Clearly, we need to prioritize well, but all of these issues are priorities not just to us, but to the president. We will get our job done no matter what.”

Aggressive outreach to states and industries affected by the regulations will continue to be a priority, McCarthy said, as will touting the public health and economic opportunities created by the rules. She also strongly defended her regulatory efforts as within her statutory authority and doubted Americans would support efforts to stop them.

“ I am not seeing the American public having a taste for rolling back public health protections,” McCarthy said. “I’m operating within the laws that Congress has given to me.”

Existing Source Regulation of Methane Possible

McCarthy said the EPA has left open the possibility of some day directly regulating methane emissions from existing oil and gas wells but chose not to commit to them in a national methane reduction plan announced Jan. 14 to study available technologies and give industry time to drive emissions reductions through voluntary programs.

“Our approach both utilizes regulatory and voluntary programs and continues to leave open our work with industry to see whether they continue to reduce emissions from existing [sources] to the point where regulations are unnecessary,” McCarthy said. “You will see those emissions from existing facilities continue to decrease as a result of all these efforts.”

There is “no time deadline in the statute for us to look at existing” sources for regulation, McCarthy said. Reducing methane emissions will allow industry to be more profitable and allow the U.S. to waste less natural gas, she said.

Direct regulations on methane emissions from new oil and natural gas wells are expected to be a key component of meeting President Obama's goal of reducing emissions by as much as 45 percent by 2025.

Other Agencies Are Part of Strategy

Other efforts from the EPA, the Bureau of Land Management, the Energy Department and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration are also included in the strategy, though industry and environmental experts believe the administration will fall short of its goal if it doesn't eventually regulate existing sources.

As the agency prepares final rules on carbon pollution from new and existing power plants, it continues to work effectively with the “vast majority of states” and will promulgate final rules that are reasonable and effective, McCarthy said.

“We’re not stuck with what we propose,” McCarthy said. “We really want to know what the comments say and what kind of changes we should be looking at... I don’t know that I can make any particular judgment at this point about what direction [the final regulation] is heading.”

Specific state emission targets as well as the broad structure of the regulation remain under consideration, and no final decisions have yet been made, McCarthy said.

The EPA announced Jan. 7 it would issue regulations covering new, existing and modified/reconstructed power plants together sometime in “mid-summer.” Those regulations, a central component of Obama's Climate Action Plan, would set emissions limits for power plants across the country.

Water Rule Needs Clearer Language

Regarding the agency's proposed clarification of the Clean Water Act's jurisdiction, McCarthy said the final rule would need to be written in “much more plain language.”

She pledged an aggressive educational outreach campaign over the next several months, including travel to some of the states most directly affected by the proposed rule, to address misinformation about the regulation.

The joint EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rulemaking would bring under federal jurisdiction all tributaries of streams, lakes, ponds and impoundments as well as wetlands that affect the chemical, physical and biological integrity of larger, navigable downstream waters. It also would require case-by-case determinations on whether wetlands and other small bodies of water are subject to Clean Water Act protections (79 Fed. Reg. 22,188).

A joint nonbinding Clean Water Act interpretive rule “got all mixed up and got read wrong” due to imprecise and unclear language, according to McCarthy.

That rule, issued along with the proposed waters of the U.S. rule, attempted to clarify that discharges of dredged-and-fill material associated with existing normal agricultural, ranching and silvicultural practices are exempt from dredge-and-fill permits before it was eliminated in the fiscal year 2015 spending bill (Pub. L. No. 113-235).

Congressional interest has been especially intense on the proposed rule, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) vowing to attack it through standalone legislation and the appropriations process.

New Truck Standards Coming

McCarthy said the agency, along with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, will issue the second phase of its fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards for medium- and heavy-duty trucks this spring.

Trucks represent the second greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, McCarthy said, calling the forthcoming regulation a “very big deal for us” and said strong outreach was ongoing with the trucking industry.

McCarthy declined to take a position when asked if the EPA would support legislation modifying the renewable fuel standard or addressing the management of coal ash. She said the agency would meet an Oct. 1 deadline to finalize revisions to the national ozone standard.

“We have a heavy workload,” she said, but “I am not seeing we’re going to have difficulty in getting out any of these major rules we’re working on. The president has made it very clear the support that he’s providing to this agency and his interest in maintaining our ability to protect human health and the environment.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Anthony Adragna in Washington at aadragna@bna.com

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