Pruitt and His Air Chief Diverge on Industrial Expansion Permits

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By Jennifer Lu

The EPA is looking at a “comprehensive rule” to address air permits for facilities that plan to expand or upgrade their operations, Administrator Scott Pruitt said April 26.

The EPA chief made the comment during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing that mainly focused on Pruitt’s spending and ethics issues. His emphasis on an air permit rulemaking appears to depart from earlier statements by his air chief who said the agency would be relying on non-binding guidance.

Pruitt didn’t elaborate on when or how the Environmental Protection Agency would move forward with a rule on the permitting program, known as New Source Review. The program governs what pollution controls are required when power plants, industrial boilers, and other pollution sources make operational modifications that go beyond routine maintenance.

Changing Tune

His assertion that a rule was planned diverges from earlier statements of his air chief, William Wehrum, who recently told Bloomberg Environment that the agency would rely on guidance to address what are called “preconstruction permits.”

“We can provide clear guidance through guidance,” Wehrum said in an April 13 interview with Bloomberg Environment. “Our strategy is to tell people sooner rather than later how we think the program should be implemented.”

The EPA under Pruitt has changed how facilities tally upgrade-related emissions that trigger new pollution controls under the program.

Costly Controls, Expanded Plants

The permit program requires factories and power plants to install costly new air pollution controls when they expand or make modifications that increase their emissions. Industry groups sought changes that in many cases would exclude them from having to add the controls.

So far, the EPA has made the changes in three non-binding guidance documents released in December, March, and April.

Although relying on guidance can effect changes quickly, another administration can easily reverse them.

Environmental critics have said that making policy through guidance circumvents the public notice and comments process that’s required in rulemaking.

If, as Pruitt indicated, the agency does pursue a rulemaking, it could run into obstacles set by legal precedents that reversed some of Wehrum’s rulemaking efforts when he served as acting air chief during the George W. Bush administration. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit revoked most of the changes made during those rulemaking efforts.

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