Chemical facilities could face increased regulation and costs following EPA proposal on greenhouse gas health risks

Chemical facilities could face burdensome permits and pricey construction requirements following the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) preliminary determination that greenhouse gas emissions endanger human health and welfare.

The EPA is proposing to find that current and projected concentrations of six primary greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride - pose the threat, and should be regulated under the nation’s Clean Air Act. 

The agency’s action means that it is on a course to eventually set emission standards for these substances, with motor vehicles likely to be the first targets in the EPA’s sights.

A final endangerment finding alone would not lead to the regulation of these emissions from stationary sources like chemical facilities, but would likely pave the way for such action. If the proposed finding sticks, many close observers predict that chemical facilities could be required to install costly controls in an attempt to minimise greenhouse gas emissions. 

Vulnerable chemical facilities would be those emitting more than 250 tonnes of a regulated pollutant per year. ’These are extremely low thresholds for CO2 and could potentially sweep in tens of thousands of previously unregulated sources,’ warns Leslie Hulse, assistant general for the American Chemical Council (ACC), a major chemical company trade group. 

Years away 

’If emissions of any of these six substances contribute to climate change and harm human health, it doesn’t matter where they come from - motor vehicles or chemical facilities that emit similar substances,’ explains Jonathan Adler, a lawyer with Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, who specialises in environmental and regulatory law. He predicts that the EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from cars could be two years away, and says stationary sources will likely follow.

’This is very ominous for the chemical industry,’ agrees Peter Ferrara, who directs entitlement and budget policy at the Institute for policy innovation, a non-profit public policy organisation based in Lewisville, Texas, US. ’To the extent that chemical facilities emit CO2, they’ll have a tough time operating,’ says Ferrara, who served in the White House Office of policy development under former President Reagan, and as the US associate deputy attorney general under the first President Bush.

If the EPA does issue a final endangerment finding and eventually regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, coal burning utilities may elect to switch fuel once they are required to significantly reduce their emissions. Such a development, the ACC cautions, would impair the chemical industry’s access to affordable, reliable supplies of natural gas. 

Furthermore, the ACC argues that the EPA regulation of greenhouse gases from stationary sources would be problematic because it would force energy-intensive industries like chemistry, steel, aluminium and paper, to re-evaluate their presence in the US.  

Not only would the country face greater difficulty in attracting new manufacturing production capacity, the group says, but it would struggle to maintain the commercial and economic viability of manufacturing facilities that remain.

For its part, the EPA is playing down the significance of the development. All the speculation about the implications of the ’scientific draft finding’ is simply too premature, says the agency. 

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Europe