Republicans say EPA avoiding public comment on new rules

Two top Republican senators accused the Environmental Protection Agency of seeking to avoid public comment on possible electric-grid reliability impacts of proposed rules to limit air pollution for power plants.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Senate Environment and Public Works Ranking Member James Inhofe, R-Okla., raise the question in a letter to EPA and the Office of Management and Budget last week. They pointed to an early draft of the rule, circulated before it was proposed, in which the agency says it is “aware that concerns have been expressed by some, even in advance of this proposed rule, that this regulation may detrimentally impact the reliability of the electric grid.”

“It now appears the agency was going to solicit public comment on reliability but decided against it,” Murkowski said in a statement. “Clearly, we need answers.”

The letter, released to reporters on Monday, asks EPA to specify “why and on what legal basis” the agency allegedly decided not to seek public comment on reliability concerns.

The proposed rule, which would reduce mercury and other toxic air emissions from fossil fuel-operated generating units at about 525 power plants, has long been under fire from congressional Republicans and some states, including Texas. The House passed a Republican-fronted bill in September that would delay that rule and the agency’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule for several years. (The cross-state rule of course, has caused even more controversy in the Lone Star State.)

EPA was originally supposed to issue its final rule by Nov. 16 under a court agreement, but the agency pushed back the date by one month, citing the need to finish reading thousands of public comments. Twenty-five states such as Texas and some utilities want a federal court to delay the rule’s finalization until November 2012. They contend EPA needs more time to review more than 20,000 comments and to address concerns that the rule could cause double-digit rate increases or even blackouts.

Inhofe and Murkowski also expressed concerns the agency was considering “substantive changes” to the rule to reduce the potential for electricity grid reliability problems. They said the agency needs more than a month from now to finalize the rule if it plans to make changes to the rule before it’s finalized.

“Indeed, hastily shoe-horning a ‘safety valve’ into a final rule is not a sufficient response to reliability and price concerns,” the senators wrote.

EPA Deputy Administrator Robert Perciasepe told a House panel early this month that the agency would respond to the comments in time: “We have read every one of those comments, and we will be replying to every one of those comments.”

EPA in a statement said the agency was carefully looking at possible reliability problems.

“In the agency’s 40-year history, there have been no instances in which the Clean Air Act has contributed to electric grid reliability problems,” the agency said.

The proposed standards “would require many power plants to install widely available, proven pollution control technologies to cut harmful air emissions of mercury and other pollutants,” and facilities would have up to four years to comply, the agency said.

The agency projects its rule would deliver $5 to $13 in public-health benefits for every $1 in emission-reduction costs.