Facing mounting pressure from congressional lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, the Obama administration yesterday vowed to gradually phase in climate regulations for industrial sources.
U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said that no stationary sources will face greenhouse gas regulations this year and that small sources will not be subject to permitting requirements any sooner than 2016. EPA is also considering "substantially" raising the thresholds in its proposed "tailoring" rule to exempt more facilities from requirements that they minimize their greenhouse gas emissions.
The announcement is seen as a step forward by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers who have expressed concerns about the possible economic consequences of regulating carbon dioxide and other gases, but several senators said they still plan to move forward with efforts to handcuff EPA's regulatory authority.
Jackson's comments came in response to a letter sent last week by eight moderate Senate Democrats pressing for answers on how and when EPA plans to begin regulating the heat-trapping gases, warning that the costs may be too much for their states.
"I share your goals of ensuring economic recovery at this critical time and of addressing greenhouse-gas emissions in sensible ways that are consistent with the call for comprehensive energy and climate legislation," Jackson wrote.
EPA will begin to phase in permitting requirements and regulating large stationary sources of greenhouse gases in 2011, Jackson said. In early 2011, only facilities that must already apply for Clean Air Act permits for other pollutants will need to address those emissions. Fewer than 400 facilities would be subject to those requirements, she said. The agency will begin to require permits from other large sources in the latter half of 2011.
Senators who are backing efforts to hamstring EPA's regulatory authority said the gradual schedule was a positive signal.
"It helps," said Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who was one of the lead signatories on the letter sent last week to EPA.
Still, Rockefeller said that EPA regulations would have enormous implications on coal state economies and should be handled by Congress instead of a federal agency. Rockefeller said he remains committed to "presenting legislation that would provide Congress the space it needs to craft a workable policy that will protect jobs and stimulate the economy."
Rockefeller has said he plans to introduce a bill that would halt EPA's rules for between two and five years.
"I can't say this with total authority, but I think that to some extent Lisa [Jackson] and to more extent the White House wants this," Rockefeller said of his bill. "We probably ask for more time than they want," he added, but when drafting the bill, "we talked as we went along with the EPA and the White House."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is pushing a separate resolution aimed at blocking EPA climate rules, also welcomed EPA's announcement.
Murkowski aides read the EPA letter for the first time just off the Senate floor. "It's a pretty substantial backing off," one staffer said, referring to Jackson's plan to delay until 2011 any climate-related stationary permits.
"Well, considering where we were yesterday, absolutely," Murkowski added. "Absolutely."
Murkowski, the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said EPA's planned schedule was "good" but said she had a number of questions as well.
"One of the unknowns is, if they're in agreement they're not going to be moving on stationary, that's certainly helpful, but what happens to permits in the meantime?" Murkowski said. "Will any permits be issued? Are they just kind of put on hold? I suppose you can expect to see litigation against EPA failing then to move on the stationary sources? What does that do to the permits then to move on the stationary sources?
"What we're trying to do is gain a little certainty here," she added. "I'd be curious to know whether they actually believe we'll have more certainty or less."
Late yesterday, Murkowski said her resolution remains the best path because it uses the Congressional Review Act -- which requires 51 votes to pass the Senate -- to block EPA, rather than Rockefeller's bill, which would require 60 votes to pass and for a shorter timer period.
"A temporary timeout isn't sufficient," said Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon. "Bad regulations today are bad regulations tomorrow."
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who also signed on to the letter questioning EPA's regulatory plans, said the calendar laid out by Jackson "makes me feel a lot more comfortable." Begich noted that he had not yet read EPA's response.
States laud timeline
State and local air regulators also applauded EPA's plans to gradually roll out the permitting requirements.
"We are extremely pleased that EPA is providing states with the additional time and flexibility outlined in Administrator Jackson's letter," said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. "It will result in a much smoother transition and allow states to tailor their rules to comport to the federal regulations in a seamless manner."
EPA's proposed tailoring rule would have raised emission thresholds for facilities that need permits from 100 or 250 tons of pollution per year -- the Clean Air Act's thresholds for conventional pollutants -- to 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.
Jackson said yesterday that EPA's final tailoring rule -- expected next month -- will include a "substantially higher" threshold than the proposal.
But while the draft rule seeks to raise the permitting thresholds across the country, state regulators and some industry groups have warned that states will need additional time to change lower thresholds that they have on the books.
Nearly 40 states operate under EPA-approved "State Implementation Plans" (SIPs) that establish a 100- or 250-ton threshold for the permitting requirements, according to an association of state and local air regulators. Those state limits would remain in place until state laws and regulations are modified, the group said.