EPA sets schedule to limit pollution from power plants, oil refineries

The Environmental Protection Agency announced a timetable Thursday to curtail greenhouse gas emissions from two major sources of the pollution scientists link to global warming: power plants and oil refineries.

The announcement was the latest step in an ambitious effort to begin taking action on climate change, and it is certain to draw fire from congressional Republicans and industry leaders who have promised to halt the agency’s efforts.

The new move toward far-reaching emissions rules comes as environmentalists had begun to worry that the Obama administration was easing its push in order to avoid confrontations with major industries in advance of the 2012 presidential campaign.

Unlike regulations coming out Jan. 2 that address pollution only from new facilities or expansions, the schedule announced Thursday would eventually compel industry to reduce emissions across the board, including at older sites. Power plants and oil refineries account for almost 40% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.


Under the new plan, the EPA would issue proposed standards for power plants in July, go through a public comment and revision period, and announce final standards in May 2012. For the nation’s refineries, proposed standards would come out next December and final standards in November 2012.

In a telephone news conference, Gina McCarthy, EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation, said she did not know what the standards would ultimately require, or by how much the country’s greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced.

McCarthy said that by 2016 at the latest, power plants and refineries would probably be bringing on line the technology they need to meet greenhouse gas emission targets.

“What we’re announcing today is the beginning of a process that will decrease greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. while providing certainty to industry,” McCarthy said.

Industry, at least in the form of Washington lobbyists and trade groups, vehemently disagreed with the agency’s prognosis. They asserted that, EPA’s claims notwithstanding, there was no off-the-shelf technology they could use to reduce the output of greenhouse gases, especially from coal-fired plants.

“Regulations can’t create technology that doesn’t exist or change the laws of physics and economics, so the only way to comply with EPA’s proposals would be to inflict massive increases in energy costs and massive increases in unemployment on families across our nation,” said Charles T. Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Assn.

“We will urge Congress to vote to stop EPA from implementing these greenhouse gas regulations,” he said in an e-mailed statement.

The Energy Department is heavily funding research into carbon capture and sequestration technologies that could be used by big polluters, but utility industry representatives said they are not yet commercially viable.

“We have heard the same complaints for years from them,” said David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate center. “You used to hear it from the auto industry — there’s nothing we can do that we haven’t already done.”

After years of fighting better fuel efficiency standards, the auto industry, thanks to a series of lawsuits, now backs EPA’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles through higher gas mileage from new cars.

The EPA’s timetables for refineries and power plants are the result of its decision to settle two lawsuits brought against the agency during the George W. Bush administration by a coalition of environmental groups and states, including New York and California, that demanded regulation of carbon emissions from those industries.

To critics, the new schedules are emblematic of regulatory overreaching by the Obama administration.

“Today’s announcement marks a crescendo in the EPA’s long regulatory assault against America’s energy producers,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “The EPA has its foot firmly on the throat of our economic recovery. We will not allow the administration to regulate what they have been unable to legislate.”