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EPA's Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program Faces Fire from Both Sides

The EPA reporting initiative needed to inventory the nation's carbon footprint is angering advocates on both sides of the issue, for different reasons

Mar 16, 2011
Power plant at night

WASHINGTON—No wonder the Environmental Protection Agency is feeling more battered and friendless than usual. Nowadays, even some of its most stalwart allies are breathing down the agency's already-overheated neck.

One of Administrator Lisa Jackson's latest headaches has erupted over the rather innocuously named Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program.

Not so shockingly, Tea Party movement-infused House Republicans are trying to slice away all the funding for the congressionally mandated initiative from the budget for the remaining six-plus months of the 2011 fiscal year.

But tweaking from the left side of the political spectrum is a bit more surprising. 

Four environmental organizations often lumped together as "Big Green" are wary that the EPA will let mega-size polluters from all sectors off the hook by kowtowing to their claims that detailed information showing how they calculate their emissions should be protected as confidential.

That, the green groups fear, could compromise the federal government's effort to inventory the nation's carbon footprint. Environmentalists argue that underlying data, not just a total emissions figure, are vital for designing effective policy to rein in carbon.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and Clean Air Task Force are pushing back at what they are calling EPA's potentially illegal proposal to grant companies three more years — until 2014 — to comply with a request they've known about for a long time.

They are urging the EPA to stick to its original demands and deadlines.

"I understand competitive concerns of companies," NRDC attorney Meleah Geertsma told Solve Climate News in an interview. "I'm hoping we can address some of those concerns. If not, we could end up losing a lot of important data for which we don't think there's any competitive harm."

What's the Big Hoo-Ha?

Congress approved the idea behind the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program in 2007 and the EPA launched it in October 2009. Under the scheme, facilities emitting at least 25,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases per year are required to collect "accurate and timely" data about carbon dioxide emissions.

The idea behind the program is to give federal authorities a blueprint of who is emitting what and how much of it.

Figures to be filed in an annual report to the EPA, which would be open to the public, are geared to guide carbon-control policy decisions. Initially, EPA authorities told companies that they would have to submit their first inventory reports — emissions for all of 2010 — by March 31 of this year.

But that deadline has been delayed until late summer because of technical glitches with an unwieldy electronic reporting system. Earlier this month, the EPA realized that the rollout was rocky and needed further testing.

"To ensure that the requirements are practical and understandable to the thousands of companies already registered to report under the program, the agency is in the process of finalizing a user-friendly online electronic reporting platform," agency spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn wrote in a March 1 news release.

Companies are still expected to file their bare-bones emissions reports by a new September 30, 2011 deadline, EPA announced on March 17. (Update added, 3/18/2011)

Back in December, EPA started hinting that delaying release of the arithmetic behind the detailed data for three years will allow officials sufficient time to review claims from the Federal Trade Commission and business groups that such trade secrets are confidential.

That means businesses wouldn't have to comply with a full set of numbers until March 2014 when figures from the 2013 calendar year would be required. The very notion that companies could skip submitting the nitty-gritty behind a total emissions count sets watchdog organizations on edge.

For Some, Delay Is OK

Columbia University law professor Michael Gerrard isn't quite as exercised about the potential three-year delay on what he refers to as companies' emissions "subnumbers."

"It's extremely important that these macro numbers, the total emissions per facility, be reported as soon as possible," Gerrard, director of the university's Center for Climate Change Law, told SolveClimate News in an interview. "That's a large step in the right direction. And the public, companies and the EPA will be able to make good use of those numbers."

While he agrees that subnumbers should be available to the public, he classified it as a lower priority, saying he could imagine circumstances where it would be legitimate for a company to protect those specifics.

"I don't want to minimize the importance of these subnumbers but they are secondary," said Gerrard, who has 30 years of environmental law experience. "If a company is making a good faith effort, it ought to be possible to work out a data protection system where the numbers are available to the public."

Trade associations such as the American Chemistry Council say they support establishment of a national reporting system for greenhouse gas emissions and praised EPA's willingness to review how confidential business information is treated.

Generally, data classified as confidential business information is exempt from a requirement under the Clean Air Act that all pollution data be available for public consumption.

"Specifically, we support [EPA's] recent effort to re-examine the reporting of inputs to emissions equations," Mike Walls, the council's vice president of regulatory and technical affairs, said in a March 1 news release. "Similar to EPA's Toxic Release Inventory program, the reporting program should properly balance the limited data that must be submitted to EPA and the bulk of the data that remains onsite for potential EPA or state review."

Big Green Fired Up

Allowing companies a deferral would seriously degrade the reporting system's data quality, deny the public its legal right to this data and disrupt other reporting programs, such as one EPA is designing for oil refineries within the next year or so, attorneys for the four environmental organizations wrote in a 33-page document submitted to EPA March 7.

"This slap-dash approach to the deferral is troublingly inconsistent with EPA's congressional mandate to develop and operate the reporting system pursuant to the Clean Air Act, including its public disclosure requirement, without delay," they stated.

Geertsma, the NRDC lawyer who co-authored the document, said in an interview that independent research proves that the emissions equations companies seem intent on protecting are not trade secrets because they are already publicly available.

"If it's available and disclosed elsewhere as a matter of course and if the companies aren’t doing a good job of protecting it, then how sensitive can it be?" she asked.

Keeping emissions equations out of the mix would leave EPA and the public unable to verify the accuracy of a company’s calculations, Geertsma and the other attorneys wrote.

"Not only does this threaten public confidence in the system, it also creates a significant incentive for industry, whether negligently or intentionally, to take liberties in data collection and reporting of the primary numbers," they continued, "because the delay proposed for reporting the verification data elements means that no one will be looking over industry’s shoulders."

If the agency persists on its current deferral path, attorneys indicated they have grounds for a lawsuit.

"EPA is struggling with a tough question," Geertsma said. "Obviously, we're understanding of technical problems with this new data base.

"We can live with some delay but we want to see all of this fixed as soon as possible. We think all of this can be resolved by August."

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