After Years of Inaction, EPA Tightens Toxic Air Standard for Oil Refineries

Lawsuit helped force an update of emissions standards for dangerous chemicals that went unchanged nearly 30 years.

Shell Deer Park Refinery in Texas on the Houston Ship Channel. Newly released EPA emission factors acknowledge that refinery and chemical plant flares release four times as many VOCs, a cancer causer, than previously thought. Credit: Roy Luck

The federal government has issued new guidelines to correct the chronic underestimation of toxic air pollutants emitted from oil refineries and petrochemical plants.

The Environmental Protection Agency late Monday released a revised set of "emission factors"—mathematical formulas used by industry to estimate the amount of air pollutants coming from their facilities.

The new emission factors acknowledge that refinery and chemical plant flares release four times as many volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than previously thought. VOCs are dangerous chemicals that can cause cancer and other illnesses. Emissions of hydrogen cyanide, a poisonous gas that attacks the nervous system, were underestimated by a factor of 10 from refineries' fluid catalytic cracking units—equipment used to make gasoline and other fuels.

The new EPA guidelines have wide implications for public health and for an industry regulated by air permits. Facilities that emit a certain amount of pollutants must apply for air permits, and these new guidelines may mean facilities not previously required to have a permit now must comply with regulatory emission limits.

Emission factors are also used to report annual emissions, to calculate overall air quality and to determine if facilities comply with regulations, said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), an advocacy group whose lawsuit prompted the revised guidelines.

Schaeffer said he believes the new emissions factors will lead to better regulatory scrutiny and increased installation of pollution control technology.

"Members of industry have a saying, 'What gets measured gets improved,'" said Adrian Shelley, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, in a statement. "Only by accurately measuring emissions can we reduce pollution and protect public health."

The EIP lawsuit was filed on behalf of four environmental organizations: Air Alliance Houston, Community In-Power And Development Association, Inc., Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is supposed to revise its emission factors once every three years to accurately reflect emissions data. But the VOC emission factors were nearly 30 years old when they were updated Monday.

Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said she was "absolutely happy" with the new guidelines.

Rolfes' group advocates for environmental justice in fenceline communities next to refineries and chemical plants. The word "bucket" refers to an EPA-approved air sampling device used by Rolfes' team and other grassroots groups to gather evidence of local air pollutants.

The good news is that EPA decided to act, Rolfes said. But she said 30 years is too long to wait. "The bad news is people have gotten really sick because the EPA hasn't done its job for all this time."

Tuesday morning, Rolfes said she received a phone call from an elderly resident who lives close to a refinery and tank farm. The woman couldn't sit on her front porch because the fumes were so bad, Rolfes said. "The reality is children can't play outside. It's hard to relay, but in the state of Louisiana ... We are desperate for the federal government to intervene to protect us."

Rolfes cited a 2011 report from EPA's Office of Inspector General, which found systemic weak enforcement from Louisiana's environmental regulators. The report concluded that Louisiana had "a culture in which the state agency is expected to protect industry."

Within this culture, she said, the EPA is "the only lifeline we've got."

Houston, We Have a Problem

According to the EIP, only one in five industrial facilities monitor their air emissions. The remaining sources calculate their emissions using the EPA's emission factors, which allow them to estimate the amount of pollutants released without taking actual measurements. Emission factors are often determined by averaging the available emissions data, and they're supposed to be representative of the industry's overall performance.

But even after the City of Houston asked the EPA in 2008 to review its emissions guidelines to prevent hundreds of thousands of tons of pollution to escape detection and reporting each year, the agency remained silent, according to the lawsuit.

The 2013 lawsuit cited studies that monitored facilities' air pollutants in real time, and found that emissions can be 132 times greater than the emission factors determined by the EPA.

"The underreporting of emissions may expose community members to pollutants at levels that are higher than the law allows and in concentrations deleterious to human health," according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit led to a consent decree, in which the EPA agreed either to issue revised emission factors, or a determination that new emission factors were not necessary, by April 20. 

The revised emission factors released Monday were based on monitoring data from refineries and petrochemical plants. Some of the data were collected voluntarily by the companies; others were gathered under regulatory enforcement action.

EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said the new emission factors are not intended to be used by oil and gas drilling and production sites. 

"While we are aware of the fact that people in the oil and gas production sector may use these factors at their own discretion, we do not recommend their use, as many of the flares in the oil and gas sector vary from the types of flares from which we collected data to develop the factors," Purchia said in an email.

'Good Environmental Law...Good Business Sense'

William Anaya, a Chicago attorney who often represents the oil and gas industry, said the new rules will be costly but not onerous for the industry.

"It's been a long time since this was looked at, so it's reasonable that new rules are put in place to keep pace with changes in the industry," he said.

"The question becomes...are the new rules reasonable when considering the cost-benefit? What will be looked at by the industry is whether the cost to achieve the new controls can still allow a decent profit."

The industry has to look at this as the cost of doing business, Anaya said.

"Good environmental law should provoke good business sense," he said. "It will cost more, yes, but in the end the industry will find a way to capture what is being emitted now and either turned into a marketable product or disposed of as economically as possible."

A spokesman from the American Petroleum Institute said API's policy experts are reviewing the EPA guidelines and have not had time to consider the possible impacts on industry.

Half Empty, Half Full

John Bosch, a retired air monitoring expert with more than 30 years' experience at the EPA, said emission factors are inherently flawed. He believes the EPA should get rid of emission factors and force the industry to monitor its own emissions.

Even if the new emission factors are perfectly representative of the industry's average performance—which is unlikely—the results would still underestimate overall emissions, Bosch said.

The problem, he said, is that facilities will report their emissions using whatever method provides the smallest estimate. Low-emitting facilities would report their own air-monitoring data, while high-emitting facilities would use emission factors instead of their own data.

Schaeffer, the EIP executive director, had a more positive outlook on the new emission factors.

"It's always better to do monitoring" if it's done correctly, he said, but it was easier for facilities to use the EPA's emission factors instead of tracking their own pollution.

The older emission factors allowed industry to make a "default assumption" that emissions were very low, so there was no incentive to find out how much was actually being emitted, Schaeffer said. The new, higher emission factors provide an incentive for facilities to monitor their pollution, he said, which could lead to improved pollution controls.

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