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EPA delays rule on power plant emissions

EPA delays rule on power plant emissionsBy NEELA BANERJEE
Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration has decided to delay a rule that would cut emissions from power plants at major industrial facilities, the most recent in a series of decisions since the midterm elections to postpone controversial environmental regulations and tack a more business-friendly course.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s decision about the rule Monday comes three days after President Barack Obama announced plans to open more domestic territory to oil and gas drilling. Since December, the administration has slowed review and implementation of several closely watched regulations, including two affecting the powerful coal industry: ash disposal and mountaintop-removal mining. Late last week, the agency said it would reconsider parts of a September 2010 rule to limit toxic emissions from cement plants that has been targeted by industry and members of Congress.

Business lobbies and congressional Republicans began battering Obama during the midterm elections, asserting that new environmental regulations would "kill jobs." It’s unlikely that the decisions on drilling and the air pollution rule will win over critics, but they help the Obama team blunt criticism about overreaching regulatory efforts, a topic that could resonate with voters if the economy remains weak during next year’s campaign.

"There may be some who feel if they kick the can down the road, they buy themselves more time to avoid some of the political controversy surrounding some of their recent actions," said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, the trade group of state regulators.

The on-site power plant rule, referred to as Boiler MACT, was delayed more than a decade until court decisions pushed the EPA to develop a regulation. The Obama administration proposed its rule in April 2010, justifying it by saying that as many as 4,800 premature deaths from respiratory ailments could be avoided by 2013 if such pollutants as mercury, dioxins and lead were cut from the country’s 13,600 industrial power plants.

Dozens of legislators protested the rule, and industry flooded EPA with complaints. By the end of 2010, EPA pleaded with the court for at least another year to incorporate those comments into the rule, which the court denied. The agency issued a less-stringent version of the rule this March, and on Monday rescinded it for "reconsideration."

It remains unclear when EPA will issue a new rule, which would go into effect three years later to give industry time to prepare.

In a statement, EPA said it was acting in accordance with a January executive order Obama signed that sought to weed out burdensome regulation. Many environmentalists saw the policy as a peace offering to industry and congressional Republicans.

Robert D. Bessette, president of the Council of Industrial Boiler Owners, said the delay would offer EPA a chance to develop regulations that would be "reasonable and scientifically based."

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called the delay "welcome news," adding, "Our environmental goals need to be in step with our economic realities."

Some analysts cautioned against reading political motivations into the administration’s delay of environmental rules and its embrace of drilling. Others said the recent decisions represent a sharp retreat for an administration that arrived in 2009 determined to improve environmental oversight.

"I think we’ve come a long way down hill in two years since the administration came in vowing to protect communities from toxic pollution," said James Pew of Earthjustice, who successfully sued EPA to implement the boiler rule.

Allies and critics alike said they will watch to see if the criticism about regulatory overreach is swaying the administration. In the coming months, key rules are expected on other major polluters, such as utilities and refineries.




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