Cross-state rule linked to 21% drop in NOx emissions

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 16, 2017

A senior U.S. EPA official outlined an upbeat picture today of compliance with the latest version of the agency’s interstate air quality rule, pointing to preliminary data showing a 21 percent drop in power plant emissions of nitrogen oxides in the summer ozone season.

That’s a 78,000-ton drop for the 22 states covered by the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule update in comparison with last year, Reid Harvey, director of EPA’s clean air markets division, told members of the Ozone Transport Commission holding their fall meeting in Washington.

Across the region covered by the rule, NOx emissions were 7 percent below this year’s cumulative cap, known as a budget. Only a half-dozen states exceeded their individual budgets for the season, which ended Sept. 30, and none by more than 6 percent, Harvey said.

The rule, published last year, is intended to limit NOx releases from coal-fired power plants that make it harder for downwind states to comply with EPA’s 2008 ground-level ozone standard of 75 parts per billion. Ozone, which irritates lungs, is created by the reaction of NOx and volatile organic compounds in sunlight.

The rule took effect this spring; Harvey attributed the emissions drop in part to plants turning on existing pollution controls. “We’ve been working this year to make sure implementation … goes smoothly,” Harvey said.

EPA’s previous attempts to limit interstate pollution have spawned epic legal wrangling; the current rule is facing 18 lawsuits mostly brought by power companies and Republican-led states.

In a motion filed yesterday, EPA lawyers asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to push back the deadline to file their next brief by 30 days until mid-January. Assuming the court grants that motion, final briefs will be due by April 9.

The Ozone Transport Commission (OTC), created by the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, is an advisory body that also seeks to implement ozone curbs across a territory that spans all or part of a dozen Northeastern states and the District of Columbia.

Today’s meeting was only the commission’s second since EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, an appointee of President Trump, took office. It fell two days after Bill Wehrum was sworn in as the agency’s air chief.

Harvey was among several career EPA employees to offer commission members a circumspect overview of various initiatives — such as the proposed repeal or revisiting of landmark Obama-era regulations like the Clean Power Plan and tighter truck emission standards — that have attracted intense criticism from elected officials in the mostly Democrat-led states that make up the OTC.

Under Pruitt, EPA has so far also failed to make nonattainment designations that were legally due Oct. 1 for areas out of compliance with the 2015 ozone standard of 70 ppb. Some states and environmental groups have formally threatened to sue.

Mike Koerber, associate director of policy in EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, offered no new information today on its plans, saying, “We will be taking action at some point in the future.”

Koerber and the other staffers also got some polite but pointed questions about the potential impact of the Trump administration’s proposed regulatory rollbacks, particularly in light of recently released EPA modeling forecasts for states to use in drafting “good neighbor” interstate pollution reduction plans.

One of them came from Anne Gobin, air quality chief for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Her state, which suffers from some of the nation’s most stubborn ozone problems, is currently in nonattainment for the 2008 standard. EPA’s modeling shows that ozone concentrations will drop by 10 ppb in the next five years, Gobin said, a projection she found overly optimistic.

“I don’t quite see how that’s going to occur without a lot of new things going on; I don’t see what those things are,” she said.

While some good things — such as a shift to natural gas as a fuel source — are happening, she said, there are “also signals from this administration that make me fear backsliding of things we were counting on.”

Asked what he saw as the path forward, Koerber agreed the predicted 10 ppb reduction is ambitious but added that “we’ll just have to wait and see” whether EPA’s forecast turns out to be too rosy.

While no modeling is perfect, Koerber said, “it’s really the best information we have at this point in time.”