New Bush smog rules put CA air rules in doubt
- Published Friday, November 29, 2002, in the East Bay Business Times
EPA move puts state's air rules in doubt
By Alan Doyle
The Bush administration's relaxation of air pollution rules could
force Northern California to ease its restraints - currently the
toughest in the nation - Bay Area Air Quality Management District
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency denies such a possibility in
documents announcing the Nov. 22 change in "new source review"
regulations aimed at reducing the paperwork and expense for heavy
industries installing new equipment that will emit pollutants.
And East Bay refineries say that although they're still studying the
proposed regulations, they don't expect local standards will be
subordinated to the U.S. EPA rules.
Bay Area Air Quality Management District officials aren't so sure.
"In this case, what I believe the feds are saying is that California
can have only equivalent rates, which would be a big step backward,"
said Terry Lee, the air district's director of public information.
"I suspect they're both right," said Peter W. McGaw a Walnut Creek
lawyer who heads the Contra Costa Council's environmental task force
and is an expert on air and water law.
"California can do whatever it wants to do as long as it's as tight
or tighter than the feds," McGaw said. "That's not to say the feds
aren't going to put some political pressure on California to come in
line with the rest of the nation."
Under the federal Clean Air Act, states must meet U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency baselines but may adopt tougher standards. In
announcing the Nov. 22 changes, the EPA said states would remain free
to adopt tougher standards.
California has done just that, with varying stringency by regional
districts in the Sacramento area, the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay
Area, which has written the nation's strictest industrial standards.
Neither Gov. Gray Davis nor the Legislature is likely to ease those
standards in response to Bush's announcement or pressure from heavy
industry, such as the oil refining complexes in the East Bay and Los
Angeles areas. In fact, some observers say Davis may propose tougher
controls on water and air pollution.
East Bay industries still are analyzing the proposed change in new
source review, or NSR, regulations that will undergo a national
public review and comment period before becoming law. Nationally,
environmental groups have threatened to challenge the changes in
"It's really too early to tell what, if any, impact the revisions
will have. We're studying the revisions," said Bill Tanner, spokesman
at Valero Energy Corp.'s Benicia refinery, where a proposed $150
million upgrade project will undergo NSR review. "What we need to do
is understand what the (Bay Area) air district is trying to do with
the federal regulations."
The Bush administration's changes in NSR regulations and maintenance
standards were ordered after 10 years of study and hearings that
began in the Clinton administration. EPA Administrator Christie
Whitman said the changes were made to reduce redundant regulation and
the cost of installing new equipment to reduce overall pollution.
"NSR is a valuable program in many respects, but the need for reform
is clear and has broad-based support," Whitman said in a Nov. 22
press release. "The steps we are taking today recognize that some
aspects of the NSR program have deterred companies from implementing
projects that would increase energy efficiency and decrease air
pollution. Instead of being a tool to help improve air quality ...
NSR has stood in the way of making numerous environmental
improvements at many facilities across the nation."
In essence, the changes eliminate the need for an exhaustive review
every time a "new source" of pollution - which can be equipment
installed to reduce emissions - is installed, and grants more leeway
for spikes created by maintenance as long as overall long-term
emissions stay within limits.
The changes appear principally to benefit older smokestack
industries, such as coal-fired power plants, in the Northeast and
Midwest. All of California's major power plants use natural gas,
nuclear energy or water to turn the turbines that generate
electricity. Only a few small coal- or oil-fired plants remain in the
East Bay refineries don't expect any change in regional air standards
to result from the federal action.
That includes Shell Oil Products U.S., whose Martinez refinery this
month paid $510,000 to the air district for violations between 2000
and 2002, including major releases in October and December of 2001.
The refinery also paid $675,000, including a $405,000 criminal
penalty, to the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office for
the October and December 2001 releases.
"No matter the machinations in Washington, at the end of the day,
we're governed by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which
has the toughest environmental standards in the country," said Shell
refinery spokesman Steve Lesher. "Those goals are standards that we
embrace. It is our goal not only to meet those standards but exceed
Reach Doyle at adoyle@... or 925-598-1404.