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May 15, 2013
Coal mines safe for now from GHG rules

Other priorities and a tight budget are the two main reasons the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has denied a June 2010 petition from environmental groups to develop greenhouse gas (GHG) air emissions standards for coal mines under the new stationary-source provisions of Clean Air Act (CAA) Section 111(b)(1)(A). 

In their petition, stakeholders that included WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club said their primary goal was issuance of federal air standards to control the emissions of methane from new, reconstructed, and existing surface and underground coal mines as well as abandoned mines.  Such standards, the petition added, would also result in the cocontrol of additional air pollutants, including particulate matter, nitrogen oxides (NOx), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). 

According to the petition, the EPA must list coal mines under Section 111(b)(1)(A) because emissions from these sources are reasonably anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.  Once a source is listed under the section, the Agency must establish federal standards to control methane emissions.  The petition points out that methane is the second most emitted GHG and 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2).  The petition states further that since methane has a significantly shorter atmospheric lifespan than CO2, reducing methane emissions may mitigate climate change to a greater degree in the short term. 

12 percent budget decrease

In his response letter to the petitioners, Acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe notes that between 2006 and 2013, there has been a 12 percent budget decrease for the Agency’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards (OAQPS)—the office that would have conducted a Section 111(b)(1)(A) review for coal mines—as well as a 43 percent budget decrease for contractors that provide technical support.  Reductions mandated by sequestration further reduced EPA’s 2013 budget and necessitated scaling back a number of regulatory efforts already under way, wrote Perciasepe.

In addition, the OAQPS currently has an agenda of more than 45 nationally applicable stationary-source rules due for review or promulgation by September 2014.  Of these, more than 25 are subject to consent decrees with current deadlines that must be met by the end of fiscal year 2014.  In addition, more than 15 additional, recently issued rules are either being challenged in court or are the objects of petitions for consideration from stakeholders.

“Thus, the agency is being asked to accomplish many actions with less budget and staff available,” wrote Perciasepe.  “The EPA must prioritize its undertakings to efficiently use its remaining resources.”

Priorities are transportation and power plants

Perciasepe says the EPA is taking a “commonsense” and cost-effective approach to GHG emissions by addressing the largest sources of emissions first—specifically, the transportation sector and electric power plants—which together account for 60 percent of total U.S. emissions.  Transportation GHG emissions are the subject of the Agency’s finalized standards for heavy-duty trucks and for cars and light-duty trucks.  The Agency is also working on standards that would control GHG emissions from new fossil-fuel power plants. 

Moreover, the letter points out that the Agency negotiated a consent decree with the petitioning groups that led to the issuance of new air emissions standards for the oil and gas industry.  While that action did not directly regulate GHGs, GHG cobenefits are estimated at 19 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), wrote Perciasepe.  In addition, the EPA is now conducting a CAA-required 8-year review of the New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for municipal solid waste landfills.  Perciasepe says a revision to this standard would result in “significant additional GHG benefits.”

“In contrast to the electricity sector, the coal-mines sector represents about 1 percent of total 2011 U.S. GHG emissions,” said Perciasepe.

Steps in rulemaking
Finally, the letter lists the steps that the EPA would need to undertake if it were to embark on a GHG rule for coal mines.  These would include characterizing emissions from the sector, reviewing and evaluating climate change science since the 2009 endangerment finding, and reviewing the scientific literature specific to climate change and coal mining.  Furthermore, if the Agency were to list coal mines under Section 111(b)(1)(A), the Agency would have only 1 year to propose standards, during which another set of detailed studies and assessments would need to be conducted. 

Given that federal agencies are afforded considerable discretion in ordering their priorities and directing limited resources, Perciasepe concluded that addressing GHGs from coal mines is not an appropriate EPA action at present.

Click here for Perciasepe’s letter to the petitioners.

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