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EPA pitches regional haze extension to accommodate Clean Power Plan, MATS

The U.S. EPA has proposed amendments to the regional haze program that would allowstates more time to consider other federal rules that could impact compliance decisions,such as the Clean Power Plan, Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and the NationalAmbient Air Quality Standards for sulfur dioxide and fine particulate matter.

The agency is also proposing a number of meant to ease regulatory burden forstates and to better take into account wildfires and other natural sources of visibilityimpairment that could be skewing data for states.

The proposed amendments, issued April 25, would push back thedeadline for states to submit the second round of state implementation plans, orSIPs, and revise the deadline and requirements for progress reports. States originallyhad to submit their SIPs by July 31, 2018, but will now have until July 31, 2021.

The regional haze program was created by Congress as part ofthe 1977 Clean Air Act amendments and has been tweaked and updated several timessince. The EPA's regional haze rule requires all 50 states plus the District ofColumbia to develop a plan to mitigate visibility concerns in national parks causedby pollution from power plants and other industrial sources. Those facilities maybe required to install controls, such as emissions scrubbers, based on the technologyguidance provided by a state or federal plan.

The EPA has designated some areas as mandatory Class I areas,which requires states and other locations contributing to the pollution to establishgoals and emissions-reduction strategies for improving visibility.

The newly proposed changes will give states more time to considerthe effects of several unrelated regulatory programs that will become effectivein the coming years that could assist the visibility improvements goals of the regionalhaze rule. The Clean Power Plan, which regulates carbon emissions from existingpower plants, is tentatively scheduled to become effective in 2022, barring anychanges in its scheduledue to ongoing legal challenges.

States lobbied the EPA for the extension and told the agencythat more time would be advantageous. "The EPA expects this cross-program coordinationto lead to better overall policies and enhanced environmental protection,"the agency said.

The first round of SIPs for regional haze will not be subjectto the proposed revisions, and the end date for the second implementation periodwill remain in 2028, which means that states will still have to focus on makingmeaningful reductions in that time.

The EPA has also proposed to extend to all states a requirementthat mandates action when a single source or small number of sources are affectingvisibility in a national park or regulated area. Other changes proposed by the EPAinclude a clarification of the relationship between long-term strategies and reasonableprogress goals that states must create. Both are related, yet separate requirementsthat lay out a timeline for an improvement in each subsequent SIP.

The agency will also alter how days are selected for trackingprogress toward natural visibility conditions to focus attention on days where visibilityis impaired. This change will reduce the frequency of natural events such as wildfiresand natural dust storms that can distort a state's actual trend toward compliance.

The EPA reported progress toward natural visibility in some areassince the regulation took effect. The Eastern Class I areas, for example, have seenvisibility improvements on the 20% haziest days based on data from 1999 to 2014.In Western areas, however, improvements made have been hampered by wildfires anddust events.

The Sierra Club heralded the "commonsense" revisionsto the regional haze rule and said the proposed changes will close loopholes thatpreviously allowed the entities emitting haze-causing pollution to avoid timelycleanup of their emissions.

The National Parks Conservation Association, however, is notso keen on the proposal, specifically the alteration of the deadlines. While theNPCA is supportive of measures that would provide for steady reductions in nationalpark pollution, the group believes that the new deadlines would allow known emittersof haze-causing pollution to delay making changes to prevent pollution and set backemissions-reduction efforts by years.

The NPCA therefore urged the EPA to adopt the measures that wouldstrengthen the regional haze rule and reject those that would provide more timeto comply with the regulation.

The EPA will host a public hearing May 19 to hear comment onthe changes at the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C.