New EPA air boss outlines next steps for doomed climate rule

Source: Niina Heikkinen, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Trump administration will “very soon” ask for public comment on how it could replace the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, U.S. EPA’s new air office chief said yesterday.

In one of his first public appearances since taking the air job, Bill Wehrum told reporters that he hopes Administrator Scott Pruitt will sign a so-called advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) on a replacement for the Obama-era climate regulation within a “few days.” Wehrum said of the timing, “It’s not my decision, it’s the administrator’s, so that’s why I can’t be more specific.”

How — and whether — the Trump administration replaces the Clean Power Plan is being closely watched. Prior to Wehrum’s confirmation as assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, the administration announced its intention to repeal the rule that aims to slash power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions. Since his Senate confirmation last month, Wehrum has been helping to guide the administration’s plans for what comes next — which many predict will be a dramatically pared-down version of the Obama rule that regulates individual power plants.

Wehrum spoke yesterday at a semiannual meeting of EPA’s Clean Air Act Advisory Committee, which includes advisers from states, environmental groups and industries. He faced a number of questions from members about the fate of EPA’s climate rules.

Of the Clean Power Plan notice, Wehrum noted that the ANPR hadn’t yet been released from the White House Office of Management and Budget, which reviews agency rulemaking documents before they’re released publicly.

“It’s been at OMB for some time now, for the past week or so I’ve made it a priority to get it out of OMB review, and I think we are making progress,” he said.

The document will seek public comments on two main areas: the scope of federal and state authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, and how those emissions could be regulated.

The agency may frame a potential replacement in the model of a new source performance standard (NSPS), rather than following the first building block of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which focused on improving power plant efficiency, according to Wehrum.

“[It is] an NSPS in the way NSPS has been done up until now is to look at the emitting entity, in this case a power plant, and then figure out what represents best demonstrated technology on that entity,” he said.

That process could also consider various options for improving power plant efficiency and the viability of using carbon capture technology.

‘We are on a fast boat’

Wehrum attempted to reassure the committee that EPA was moving as quickly as possible to provide regulatory guidance for those affected by regulations on power plant emissions. Some critics have suggested the agency’s decision to propose an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking was an effort to slow-walk a decision by the agency on whether to pursue regulations.

“Don’t construe the ANPR as meaning we are on a slow boat here. I believe we are on a fast boat. These are very important issues. We owe it to ourselves and to everyone who has interest in these rules to be decisive and be clear and create long-term certainty,” he told the group.

“Asking questions without answering them for a long time doesn’t give anyone any certainty at all,” he added.

Last week, during a hearing on Capitol Hill, Pruitt stated that a replacement for the climate rule would be coming soon.

However, Wehrum stopped short of confirming that the agency would definitely replace the Clean Power Plan, referring to the prospect as “if we go down the road of CPP replacement.”

The pending release of the ANPR comes as the agency has sought public comment on repealing the Clean Power Plan, including a public hearing in West Virginia. EPA recently announced that it would host three additional hearings around the country, though dates are still being arranged.

Wehrum noted that it wasn’t inconsistent for the agency to be considering both a repeal of the Clean Power Plan and a potential replacement.

“[The options are] on one end keeping it all as it is and on the other end making it all go away, and somewhere in between is occupying some of the ground that was occupied by the CPP, but maybe not all of it,” he said.

Tomás Carbonell, lead attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund and a member of the advisory group, asked Wehrum whether the agency would be considering the environmental impacts of different proposals.

Wehrum replied that considering best demonstrated technology does not in itself include an analysis of the environmental benefits but on figuring out which technologies have been shown to work.

“Having said that, the effectiveness of control is obviously something we will look at and think about,” he said.

A key question the ANPR seeks to answer is what authority the federal government has under Section 111(d) to regulate carbon emissions. The Obama administration had sought through the Clean Power Plan to create sectorwide emissions regulations, but the Trump administration has taken a much narrower view of the question.

“There are many, myself included, [who] believe the CPP got that wrong. I believe the CPP was more of a federal mandate and not a federal suggestion. I believe 111 actually requires … EPA to set guidelines, but that states make the regulatory decisions,” Wehrum said.

He noted that if a CPP replacement were on the books, the agency would have to eventually answer the question of whether existing state emission-control programs would be enough to fulfill that regulatory requirement.

Wehrum cautioned not to consider his comments an official decision of the agency.

“We’ve made no decisions,” he said.