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David Doniger’s Blog

Clean Air Standards Coming for America's Biggest Carbon Polluters

David Doniger

Posted December 23, 2010 in Curbing Pollution, Solving Global Warming

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In a big step forward to protect Americans’ health and well-being, EPA announced today a two-year plan to set clean air standards for power plants and oil refineries, the two largest industrial sources of the dangerous pollution that drives global warming.   

Following on the heels of the Obama administration’s breakthrough clean car standards, EPA is now taking the next logical steps under the Clean Air Act and the Supreme Court’s landmark global warming decision in 2007. 

EPA is doing precisely what is needed to protect our health and welfare at a time when some would prefer just to roll back the clock.  Clear pollution control standards based on available and affordable technology will also help these two industries plan future investments, fuel the economic recovery, and create jobs. 

Power plants account for more than 2.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, more than any other industry.  Oil refineries clock in as the second largest source, with emissions equivalent to more than 200 million tons of carbon dioxide (mainly a mixture of carbon dioxide and methane).

The timetables announced today are contained in two settlement agreements that resolve lawsuits brought against EPA by NRDC and a coalition of states and other environmental organizations -- the cases are called New York v. EPA (No. 06-1322) and American Petroleum Institute v. EPA (No. 08-1277), both pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.  In both cases, we sued the Bush-era EPA for refusing to set limits on these industries' massive emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases under a part of the Clean Air Act (Section 111) that requires EPA to set performance standards for new and existing industrial facilities.  Following the Supreme Court's decision in Massachusetts v. EPA that the Clean Air Act covers carbon pollution from cars, we have pressed for EPA to acknowledge that it is also required to curb carbon pollution from industrial sources, and to say when it will take action on these two industries.

Under today's settlements, standards for fossil-fueled power plants will be proposed by July 26, 2011, and issued in final form by May 26, 2012.  Standards for oil refineries will be proposed by December 10, 2011, and issued in final form by November 10, 2012.  (The settlements are here and here.)

Section 111 of the Clean Air Act requires EPA to set, and every eight years revise, performance standards for various categories of industries. These standards apply to both new and existing sources. EPA sets the new source standards, while EPA and the states share the job for existing sources.  Section 111 requires consideration of cost and technical feasibility when determining the standards.  It also requires EPA and the states to take into account existing sources’ remaining useful life. 

EPA plans to coordinate each industry’s carbon emission standards with other upcoming pollution control requirements in a sectoral, multi-pollutant approach that facilitates sound planning and investment strategies for each industry.  These standards will also assist industries and states in the case-by-case assessment of “best available control technology” for the largest new sources, a process that begins this January.

Big polluters and their allies in Congress plan to take aim at these and other common sense standards that save thousands of lives and avoid tens of thousands of asthma attacks and other life-threatening illness each year. But the Clean Air Act is a tough target.  It has the support of millions of Americans, built on 40 years of saving lives and protecting communities across the country, while promoting economic growth.  Congress should celebrate, not delay or block, Clean Air Act standards that protect our health and well-being.  Congress should let EPA do its job. 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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