An oil and gas trade group has taken the rare step of challenging a U.S. EPA information request, saying the agency is seeking too much data as it revisits a George W. Bush-era analysis of refineries' cancer-causing emissions.
In its effort to update toxic pollution limits that date back to 1995, EPA has asked refineries to estimate their emissions of benzene and other carcinogenic chemicals, as well as pollutants that form soot and smog. The agency has long required refineries to use pollution controls to prevent such emissions, but now, it's doing a "residual risk review" to figure out whether remaining emissions give people an additional one-in-a-million chance of getting cancer.
The American Petroleum Institute filed a lawsuit yesterday in federal court to challenge the data request, which could provide the underpinnings for a stricter set of pollution rules.
By ordering data from all 152 U.S. refineries, rather than just a sample, EPA's February request will waste the oil industry's time and money, API attorney John Wagner said. The agency is seeking an "unprecedented" amount of information from each refinery, and wants it sooner than the owners can manage, he wrote in an email statement.
Refiners needed to provide the first responses by yesterday. Two more batches of data are due by the end of June and the end of August.
"The extremely tight timeframes will make it difficult if not impossible to present complete and quality-assured data to EPA," Wagner said. "That being said, I understand the refineries will be responding as they are able given the artificial limitations being placed on them."
Underlying their concerns is a fear that the Obama administration will be stricter in its review than the George W. Bush administration, which released a rule in its final days saying that refineries didn't need new equipment to protect the public from their toxic emissions.
The incoming Obama administration refused to publish the rule, which was signed by former EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson four days before President Bush left office in January 2009. Later that year, EPA made it known that it would formally withdraw the rule and redo the study of cancer risks.
Public health groups and environmentalists had claimed that the Bush-era study used flawed methodology to spare the industry from adding new controls. For instance, they said, EPA had calculated the cancer risk from exposure to a single plant rather than the compound effect of living near Houston's Ship Channel or the refinery-packed Louisiana corridor that is often derided as "Cancer Alley."
"We remain disappointed that EPA never published the final rule after years of analysis and copious technical support," said Howard Feldman, API's director of regulatory and scientific affairs. He described it as a "a very costly and unnecessary approach, considering that EPA already had a final rule completed."
Data submitted by oil companies would also be used to update the New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for refineries. Due late next year under a settlement deal with environmentalists, the standards will include greenhouse gas limits for an industry with higher emissions than any but the power sector.
John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he was surprised by the new lawsuit. It is unusual for trade groups to challenge information collection requests, which don't require companies to curb their pollution, he said.
"This is something that communities have a right to know, but that API is going to extraordinary lengths to block," Walke said.
Under the Obama administration, EPA has taken heavy fire from critics on Capitol Hill after releasing strict new toxic emissions limits for power plants, industrial boilers and cement kilns.
Each of those rules was preceded by an information collection request, which must be reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget. Lawsuits tend to pile up whenever EPA puts out a major rule, but the past three data requests were not challenged in court.
EPA estimated that the data request for refineries would take 69,000 hours and cost $30.9 million, but API and the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association predict that it will take 540,000 hours and cost more than $77 million.
Walke said it appears that refineries are trying to starve EPA of the information it needs to write solid rules. The request isn't very expensive, he said, and when the agency starts with an incomplete data set, as industry groups claimed it did with the recent set of rules for industrial boilers, there are often damaging problems with the proposed rule.
"It's not only hypocrisy -- it's hypocrisy on stilts," Walke said. "In Washington, they scream that EPA doesn't have accurate data and is imposing unrealistic emissions standards. And what do they do? They turn around and try to block EPA's collection of data."
Click here to read API's lawsuit.
Click here to read API's comments on the data request.