Wheeler: EPA power plant rule coming soon

Source: By Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, March 5, 2020

EPA is poised to release the final version of its embattled relook at a power plant toxics rule “any day now,” Administrator Andrew Wheeler said this morning.

“We expect it to be finished shortly,” Wheeler said in a short interview after testifying at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

As originally unveiled in late 2018, the proposed rule would scrap the legal underpinning for what are officially known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS (Greenwire, Dec. 28, 2018).

Because the final draft remains under review by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), Wheeler declined to comment today on whether that provision remains intact.

The OIRA review has now lasted five months, far longer than EPA officials had once predicted. In November, for example, acting EPA air chief Anne Idsal told an agency advisory committee that the final rule would be out by the end of 2019 (Greenwire, Nov. 7, 2019). The delay has led to speculation about an impasse with OIRA over the handling of cost and benefit issues.

“We just had a number of issues and a number of questions,” Wheeler said today. “We worked through it.” Again citing the continuing review, he declined to say whether EPA had agreed to redo a cost-benefit analysis accompanying the proposal.

Wheeler also said that he misspoke last week when he told reporters that the final mercury rule would be issued in late spring or early summer. He was thinking of a separate rule related to methane emissions, he said this morning. “Mercury, we should be out any day now,” he said.

The Obama EPA issued the MATS rule in 2012, intending to limit releases of the toxic metal and other hazardous pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants.

Eight years later, the power industry is almost fully in compliance and opposes the plan to revoke the legally required finding that it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate those emissions in the first place.

In response to questions from Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) during this morning’s hearing by the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, Wheeler reiterated that the EPA proposal would not lead to an increase in power plant emissions.

Critics, however, fear that repeal of the appropriate and necessary determination would be followed by a coal industry lawsuit intended to fully unravel the standards. Wheeler, before rejoining EPA, was a lobbyist whose clients included Murray Energy Corp., the privately owned Ohio coal company that has been a strident foe of the regulations, which helped prompt the closure of some coal-fired plants.

As initially proposed, the draft rule also encompassed the results of a statutorily required “residual risk and technology review,” which tentatively found that no updates to the original 2012 emission limits are needed.

The power industry is eager to see that portion of the proposal made final. In an email this morning, Susan Partain, a spokeswoman for the American Public Power Association, said the trade group did not want to speculate on the reason for the holdup at OIRA.

But, Partain added, the group would like EPA to finalize the risk and technology review “to provide certainty to the industry on this important issue.”

A spokesman for OIRA, a part of the White House Office of Management and Budget, did not reply to emailed questions sent last Friday seeking more information on the reasons for the extended review.