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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Clean Air Issues in the 113th Congress: An Overview

James E. McCarthy
Specialist in Environmental Policy

As the 113
th Congress continues consideration of air quality issues, oversight of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulatory actions is expected to remain the main focus. Of particular interest are EPA’s Clean Air Act regulations on emissions of greenhouse gases. President Obama’s June 25 announcement of initiatives to address climate change and EPA’s subsequent (September 20) proposal of GHG emission standards for new fossil-fueled power plants sparked renewed interest in the issue.

Air quality has improved substantially in the United States in the 40 years of EPA’s Clean Air Act (CAA) regulation. According to the agency’s science advisers and others, however, more needs to be done to protect public health and the environment from the effects of air pollution. Thus, the agency continues to promulgate regulations using authority given it by Congress in CAA amendments more than 20 years ago. Members of Congress from both parties have raised questions about the cost-effectiveness of some of these regulations and/or whether the agency has exceeded statutory authority in promulgating them. Others in Congress have supported EPA, noting that the Clean Air Act, often affirmed in court decisions, has authorized or required the agency’s actions.

EPA’s regulatory actions on GHG emissions have been the main focus of congressional interest in 2013. Although the Obama Administration has consistently said it would prefer that Congress pass new legislation to address climate change, such legislation now appears unlikely. Instead, over the last four years, EPA has developed GHG emission standards using its existing CAA authority. Relying on a finding that GHGs endanger public health and welfare, the agency promulgated GHG emission standards for cars and light trucks on May 7, 2010, and again on October 15, 2012, and for larger trucks on September 15, 2011. The implementation of these standards, in turn, triggered permitting and Best Available Control Technology requirements for new major stationary sources of GHGs (power plants, manufacturing facilities, etc.).

It is the triggering of standards and permit requirements for stationary sources that has raised the most concern in Congress. A proposal to limit carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants is the focus of attention currently, but other sources (refineries, cement plants, etc.) could be subject to GHG emission controls under the same statutory authority. In addition to the proposed standards for new power plants, the President has directed EPA to develop standards for existing power plants by June 2015. Legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate aimed at preventing EPA from implementing such requirements. The House passed several of these bills in the 112
th Congress, but none passed the Senate. Meanwhile, EPA has implemented permit and Best Available Control Technology requirements for new stationary sources of GHGs. A challenge to these requirements will be heard by the Supreme Court in early 2014.

Besides addressing climate change, EPA has taken action on a number of other air pollution regulations, generally in response to court actions remanding previous rules. Remanded rules included the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) and Clean Air Mercury Rule—rules designed to control the long-range transport of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury from power plants through cap-and-trade programs. Other remanded rules included hazardous air pollutant standards for boilers and cement kilns. EPA also recently proposed a controversial rule to lower the sulfur content of gasoline, in conjunction with tighter (“Tier3”) standards for motor vehicle emissions.

Date of Report: November 4, 2013
Number of Pages: 26
Order Number: R42895
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