A pair of iron plants in Louisiana have become the first facilities in the nation to get permits for their greenhouse gas emissions, and it's leaving local environmentalists holding their breath as state and federal jurisdictional issues get worked out.
The local groups say they are not convinced the state-issued permits are in compliance with the Obama administration's new climate rules, and want clarity soon in a process they say has been hampered by confusion.
Officials at the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), however, chalk up any ambiguity to the fact that they're learning as they go along.
"With other pollutants, LDEQ generally has a lot of data it can look to and see what emission rates are achievable and what types of devices work," said Bryan Johnston, administrator of the LDEQ air permits division. "Greenhouse gas add-on control technology is essentially non-existent."
On January 31, the LDEQ issued greenhouse gas permits to steel giant Nucor Corporation for two plants in the town of St. James Parish, 40 miles southeast of Baton Rouge. The permits were the first to include U.S. EPA "tailoring" rules to reign in heat-trapping gases, which kicked in on Jan. 2.
But the regional EPA office found major deficiencies with the permits, and still has yet to formally approve or reject them, leaving questions over who is ultimately in charge.
"The EPA has not delivered an official response on [Nucor], so we are looking at drafting an appeal" before a May 3 deadline, said Jordan Macha, conservation organizer for the Sierra Club Delta Chapter, referring to the last day the regional EPA can be petitioned over the Nucor permits.
Macha expressed concern over the precedent that could be established for future greenhouse gas permits.
"We are definitely in support of the EPA and the greenhouse gas rules that they passed, and part of our engagement in this permitting process ... is to ensure that whatever rules EPA has actually hold up," she told SolveClimate News.
Nucor Trims Carbon Footprint of Facilities
The controversial EPA climate rules require big carbon emitters to get Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) and Title V Operating permits to curb emissions at new and modified facilities through cost-effective Best Available Control Technology, or BACT.
Under the program, part of the Clean Air Act, EPA gives state agencies guidance and acts a resource, but specific permitting decisions are in states' hands — though EPA can enforce compliance.
The EPA "tailored" the rules last May to include only power plants, refineries and large industrial facilities with greenhouse gas emissions that exceed 75,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year.
Together, these facilities account for nearly 70 percent of the nation's global warming pollution from stationary sources. Small emitters like farms and manufacturers are exempt from adding pollution-control technologies.
In Nucor's case, it initially won permits last summer for a single 500-megawatt coal-fired pig iron plant. But community organizations hotly contested the plant, saying its enormous 9 million tons of annual CO2 emissions would only aggravate the environmental and health problems in an industry-intensive area known as "cancer alley."
A 500-megawatt coal plant, by contrast, releases roughly 3 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, according to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
By the end of 2010, Nucor had reduced the size of its proposed facility and applied again for operating permits for a direct reduced iron (DRI) facility, which uses natural gas, and a modified pig iron plant — the first two steps in a five-phase, $3.4 billion investment in the works for the next decade.
A Nucor spokesperson did not return repeated phone and e-mail requests seeking comment.
The project has received strong support from Gov. Bobby Jindal, who called the Nucor facilities an "economic win" that could create up to 1,250 direct jobs for Louisianans.
Agency Issues GHG Permits Anyway
On Jan. 7, EPA's Region 6 office sent the LDEQ an 11-page letter expressing its many concerns with the greenhouse gas permits, but the state agency went ahead and issued them weeks later.
The EPA office declined to be interviewed for this story, offering only the agency's March 4 comments to LDEQ. That document followed a 45-day review period of the permits and commends Nucor's "proactive approach to reduce both greenhouse gases and criteria air pollutants."
But it also points out that BACT measures to determine how much CO2 could be released from the facility were not "practically enforceable" as written, and that the modeling used to determine potential air pollution of the plants was not comprehensive.