If you thought President Obama’s address to the nation this week would have focused on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that is destroying the Gulf Coast economy, you would have been only partially correct. The president did mention what he called the “menacing cloud of black crude,” but the heart of his remarks was a political speech that attacked the president’s political enemies while pushing for a stock “green” agenda, including cap-and-trade legislation, that had no obvious connection to the menace in the Gulf Coast. What was supposed to be a leveling with the American people about the oil crisis became an impromptu pitch for Big Government.
The president’s political feint, while disappointing to anyone who was hoping for solutions to contain the ongoing disaster, was not entirely surprising. A significant portion of the Left is almost giddy about the disaster, because in their minds it demonstrates that industry is dangerously under-regulated and thus provides the all the evidence they need to further extend the long arm of government into aspects of the economy and industry that aren’t even remotely related to oil drilling.
Thirty one years ago the Three Mile Island incident, which didn’t actually hurt anyone, effectively shut down the nuclear power industry in the United States. Environmental activists hope to achieve much more in the wake of Deepwater Horizon: to not only stop American off-shore drilling, but to use the disaster to apply a bureaucratic strange-hold on American industry in general. The focus of the president’s address to the nation about the spill proves the point. He didn’t appear half as worried about the disaster in the Gulf as he did about passing cap and trade.
He probably won’t get that legislation, judging by the disgusted reaction of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, but there are other ways to sabotage the energy sector and the administration is hard at work doing just that. Last week, the Obama administration’s already over-the-top Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules to regulate non-utility power generation that go beyond extreme and enter the realm of the ludicrous. But, with the shadow of Deepwater Horizon hanging over America, the EPA has a very good chance of pushing them through. An oil spill, it seems, excuses every bureaucratic excess that progressives can imagine. Scores of sources – from the boilers that provide heat to college campuses to the boilers that power ethanol plants, paper mills and food processing plants – will find it impossible to comply with EPA’s proposed boiler regulations and these rules will give bureaucrats unprecedented authority to decide how these industries are run.
The proposed rules are supposed to set new limits on emissions of potentially toxic materials from power plants. The regulation is generically known as “Boiler MACT,” with the acronym standing for “Maximum Achievable Control Technology.” However, what USEPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has proposed goes well beyond the toxic realm, with the Agency attempting to use these rules as a back-door way of regulating greenhouse gases and to give Big Government a role in making operational decisions.
A little history is in order. When the Clean Air Act first came into being in its present form in 1970, the EPA was directed to develop rules limiting potentially toxic emissions based solely on risk. That is, if the Agency determined that a particular compound was being emitted in quantities sufficient to present an actual health hazard, then the EPA should develop rules to limit emissions of such a compound. Using this approach, the EPA developed rules to limit emissions of seven potentially toxic materials. This upset environmental groups, who accused the EPA of shirking their responsibilities. That wasn’t true, the Agency simply couldn’t find significant risk anywhere else, but not matter: the environmentalists demanded change, and change they got.
When the Clean Air Act was amended in 1990, the EPA was directed to limit emissions of 188 potentially toxic materials, using a technology-based approach. Very little actual science went into selecting those 188 (now 187) compounds, but the list made the Sierra Club and similar groups happy and that’s all that mattered. Under the new approach, the Agency was directed to evaluate how industries were controlling toxics, to determine the top twelve per cent doing the best job and to use these top twelve per cent to set the standard for each compound. Thus, the philosophical question behind controlling potentially toxic air pollutants shifted from “what should we do?” to “what can we do?” The EPA calls those the requirements developed using the top twelve per cent approach “MACT” and scores of industries have their own MACT, outlining the way each is supposed to control potentially toxic materials and setting numerical emissions standards.
Boiler MACT, covering the industrial sector, was first proposed in 2003 under the Bush Administration. The Sierra Club challenged it in court and EPA was directed to rewrite it. The problem that the Sierra Club had with Boiler MACT did not so much involve substance as it did style. They weren’t happy with the form of the regulation, or how the universe of regulated sources was defined. No surprise there, George W. Bush’s EPA could have proposed shutting down every coal-fired power plant in the United States and the Sierra Club would have still said that he didn’t “go far enough” to protect the environment. That’s always the green mantra when a member of the GOP occupies the White House. None-the-less, everyone expected that the “new” version of Boiler MACT would look a lot like the old one, just with more data to back it up, more justification with regard to affected sources and reformatted (but still impossible for an average Joe to understand) language. And, up until recently, that’s what EPA staffers led the regulated community to believe would happen.
But Jackson’s EPA proposed something quite different and disturbing. It effectively abandoned the “top twelve percent” formula, choosing instead to use laboratory detection limits to set limits in many cases. In other words, under EPA’s proposal industrial boilers many potentially toxic pollutants will have to be controlled so tightly that they won’t be able to find what they’re looking for. That’s one step removed from setting emissions limits at zero, and just about as unrealistic and unachievable a goal.
The proposal also requires industrial boiler operators to implement a government-approved energy management program. This program will contain multiple elements, including: a review of available architectural and engineering plans, facility operation and maintenance procedures and logs, and fuel usage; a list of major energy conservation measures; a comprehensive report detailing the ways to improve efficiency, the cost of specific improvements, benefits, and the time frame for recouping those investments; and a facility energy management program developed according to the EPA’s Energy Star guidelines for energy management.
One can argue, and Lisa Jackson’s EPA surely will, that getting the government involved in energy efficiency – i.e., how boilers are run – can affect the amount of potentially toxic emissions a facility puts out, but that’s a very thin argument, especially when the rule in question already contains draconian limits. Energy efficiency requirements are rather a backhand way of achieving the Obama administration’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, without having to go through the tiresome process of addressing “climate change” directly. Further, we’re only talking about industrial boilers here. The EPA is still formulating MACT rules that will affect the big, electricity-producing utility boilers that are far more significant in terms of size and greenhouse gas emissions than the industrial sector.
Can there be any doubt that this radical EPA will ask the power industry to accept equally unachievable limits and submit to even more government control? As far as this administration and progressives are concerned, the disaster in the Gulf is justification enough for every excess that Big Government can dream up.