WASHINGTON--U.S. environmental regulators said on Wednesday they will not force coal plants and manufacturers to adopt specific technologies to cut greenhouse gas output, but will push them to become more energy efficient to comply with looming climate rules.
The move by the Environmental Protection Agency helped relieve some fears in the industries that the agency would require emitters to quickly invest in expensive, unproven technologies to cut output of gases blamed for global warming. But industry groups did complain they would not have enough time to comply with the rules.
The EPA is taking steps to regulate greenhouse gases because Congress failed to pass a climate bill this year. Some lawmakers and industry groups are trying to stop them from regulating.
Beginning January 2, the EPA plans to start requiring big emitters such as power plants, refineries, and cement manufacturers to obtain permits for polluting greenhouse gases.
"We believe this approach will in most cases lead to improvements in energy efficiency," Gina McCarthy, an EPA assistant administrator on air and radiation, told reporters in a teleconference.
The agency released on Wednesday guidance on the best available control technologies, or BACT, that companies should use to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases. The companies will have to adhere to the guidelines when expanding or building new plants or factories, and work with state and local air authorities to decide which technology works best for them.
In addition, the EPA will not require or define a specific technology for any emitter. Companies that own coal-fired power plants had feared they would be required to invest in costly, unproven technologies to capture carbon dioxide before it comes out of smokestacks and bury it underground.
Power plants and manufacturers would likely become more efficient by upgrading their boilers or squeezing more energy from coal through established technologies.
McCarthy said efficiency improvements are less costly than other controls and offer emitters fuel savings and also cut emissions of pollution like particulates that cause health problems.
Jeff Holmstead, a former EPA assistant administrator under George W. Bush who now works for the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, said he expected the EPA guidance could lead to a moratorium for a few years on new construction of big plants.
McCarthy denied that suggestion. "Make no mistake about it: this does not represent an opportunity for any construction moratorium," she said. "There will be no stoppage as a result of this BACT process."
And an air regulation expert said the EPA move would not put heavy costs on polluters.
"EPA's guidance will provide industry greater certainty, quicker permitting decisions and a smoother path toward greenhouse gas implementation," said William Becker, the executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.
"This should put to rest the exaggerated claims of some stakeholders that greenhouse gas permitting will have disastrous economic consequences," Becker said.
The EPA faces challenges from lawmakers such as Sen. John Rockefeller, a Democrat from coal-rich West Virginia, who wants to stop the agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions for two years. If the measure passed in Congress, President Barack Obama would almost certainly veto it.
Rockefeller complained the rules were too confusing. "I am concerned that the EPA has not provided (companies) enough time to process and understand rules that they will be required to comply with in just two months' time," he said in a release. "It is still unclear what exactly will be required to receive a greenhouse gas air permit next year, as each state will be making case-by-case decisions."
In addition, the EPA faces a host of lawsuits from industry groups that question the agency's authority to regulate the gases, saying it did not do enough of its own research on global warming.
But EPA has said it relied on research conducted by several U.S. agencies to make the decision to regulate the emissions.