AIR POLLUTION:

EPA plans to tweak interstate emissions limits

U.S. EPA will give a few states and electric companies more leeway to release air pollution under a new program meant to clean up soot and smog from power plants, an Obama administration official said today.

The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, finalized this summer as a successor to the George W. Bush administration's Clean Air Interstate Rule, orders power plants in 27 Eastern states to meet stricter limits next January and show compliance in 2014.

Planned changes to certain state budgets in the trading program, rumored inside the Beltway this week and first reported today by The Wall Street Journal, would affect 2 to 3 percent of about 1,000 facilities covered by the rule and allow 1 to 4 percent more emissions to be released nationwide, depending on the pollutant in question, the official said.

A formal announcement is expected as soon as this week.

"While we don't have anything to announce at this time, EPA often makes technical adjustments based on updated information as we flexibly work to implement Clean Air Act rules," EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said in a statement. "We make these adjustments because data, including data in some cases provided by industry, turns out to be incorrect, outdated or incomplete."

The move comes as several states and power companies are asking EPA to ease the limits on emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). As finalized this July, the rules would cut SO2 by 73 percent and NOx by 54 percent from 2005 levels.

Texas, Nebraska and Kansas have filed lawsuits challenging the rules. So have the National Mining Association and several major power companies, which say the program will force some areas to endure spikes in electricity rates.

But the White House and EPA have stood behind the rule, saying it would stop tens of thousands of premature deaths, heart attacks and asthma flare-ups each year. The administration official, who asked to remain anonymous because the changes have not yet been announced, said the tweaks to state emissions budgets should not be seen as a shift in policy.

"Folks may try to make this into something it isn't, but these kinds of changes are made all the time," the official said. "It's how the Clean Air Act works."

Though the exact states and companies affected by EPA's planned changes remain unclear, they are likely to include Texas. The state says its electric companies were not given the chance to comment on some of the emissions budgets, which are based on the historical use of power plants and the type of pollution controls that they have already installed.

Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas) told Greenwire today that EPA officials called the state's largest power company, Luminant, within the past few days to discuss changes that could help the company comply with the rules.

A spokesman for Luminant, a division of Dallas-based Energy Future Holdings Corp., said the company would not comment on any changes until they are released. Luminant says that as finalized this summer, the rules would force the company to shut down two coal-fired boilers and shutter three lignite coal mines in Texas while buying lower-sulfur coal from elsewhere.

The original rule "just wasn't practical," Green said. Of the planned update, he added: "I'm hoping that's enough to get there."

Reporter Elana Schor contributed.

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