Election-year politics, $4-a-gallon gasoline and an anti-regulatory fervor on Capitol Hill have aligned to thwart EPA's vow to issue final carbon emissions standards for oil refineries this year.
Changing course puts the Environmental Protection Agency woefully behind schedule on curbing planet-warming gases from a major polluter.
The pullback on refineries—combined with an earlier and separate delay on regulating greenhouse gases from fossil fuel power plants—means EPA has yet to control emissions from a pair of sizable industrial sources. Together, refineries and power plants account for nearly 40 percent of greenhouse-gas pollution nationwide.
As part of a 2010 legal settlement with environmental organizations , EPA was on track to release draft regulations for oil refineries in December 2011 and final rules by November 2012. That timetable began to crumble last November when the agency announced it wouldn't meet the December deadline.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson hinted that the slowdown would delay final oil refinery standards until beyond 2012 when she told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week that "there are no current rules under development on that issue."
Agency spokespeople did not return numerous requests for comment.
However, plaintiffs involved in the settlement confirm that they are collaborating with EPA to formulate a new timeline for the rollout of regulations for oil refineries. Tim Ballo, a staff lawyer with the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice, is participating in the discussions.
"We've been talking with EPA for several weeks and are trying to find an appropriate schedule," Ballo told InsideClimate News. "But we don't have the dates in stone yet so we can't say with certainty when it will be."
Frank O'Donnell, president of the nonprofit advocacy organization Clean Air Watch, isn't at all shocked by EPA's snail-like pace.
"EPA is engaged in regulatory triage," he said in an interview. "With election-year politics, they're going to do only the minimal amount of regulatory activity. It's part of a pattern."
Standards for oil refineries are just one on an extensive list of regulations EPA has shunted off to the backburner, O'Donnell said. He added that the agency is only zeroing in on regulations required by court order.
"Whether they've gotten a call from the White House telling them to proceed like this, who knows," he said. "But they're not going to be tough on refiners with gas prices being what they are now."
Negotiations Redux with EPA
In December 2010, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council joined a dozen states, the District of Columbia and New York City in reaching a settlement with EPA that laid out a timeline for first-time emissions standards for oil refineries.
The settlement stemmed from two lawsuits environmentalists filed during the George W. Bush administration that focused on pollution standards required by the Clean Air Act. EPA and the plaintiffs agreed to negotiate a deal after a 2009 decision by the Obama administration to limit greenhouse gas emissions from oil refineries. The states involved include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
Joanne Spalding, who manages the Sierra Club's climate litigation, is one of the lawyers who is once again at the negotiating table with EPA. It's disappointing, but not surprising, that the agency neglected to meet the deadlines, she said.
"EPA really has its hands full," Spalding said in an interview. "Refineries are very complicated. So now we're talking about how to get them back on track and to move forward on these rules."
Under the Clean Air Act, the agency is tasked with establishing what are called New Source Performance Standards. These standards set the level of pollution new stationary sources may emit. They also address air pollution from existing facilities. EPA authorities have set these standards for other pollutants but have been tardy in spelling out specifics for greenhouse gas emissions.
The agency's performance standards for limiting greenhouse gases are directed at large emitters. Eventually, the goal is for rules to include a range of industries such as power plants, oil refineries, paper and pulp manufacturers, and oil and gas producers and transporters.
Opponents intent on blocking EPA's efforts to regulate emissions of heat-trapping gases presented two days of oral arguments  before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last week. That legal challenge stemmed from Massachusetts v. EPA, the landmark Supreme Court 2007 decision that gave EPA authority over carbon pollution.
Power Plant Rule Top Priority
All along, the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's main trade group, has maintained that carbon emissions from refineries don't need to be reined in by EPA.
"Refineries continue to comprise a small fraction of the national greenhouse gas inventory and are already one of the most regulated industries," API spokesman Carlton Carroll said in a news release . "The last thing we need now are more burdensome or unnecessary regulations that will create a drag on business efforts to invest, expand and put people back to work."
But Ballo, the Earthjustice lawyer involved in resolving the settlement with EPA, argues that tightening carbon emissions could be an economic boon for the nation's roughly 150 refineries.
"EPA is looking at making refineries more cost-effective," said Ballo, a staff attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm. "Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from refineries would improve energy efficiency and allow them to produce more barrels of oil. The investment will pay off in the long run."
Combined, petroleum refineries emit about 200 million metric tons of greenhouse gases annually. That's about one-tenth of the 2,200 million metric tons of what's spewed each year by utilities generating electricity with fossil fuels.
That latter figure represents why controlling carbon emissions from power plants should be EPA's No. 1 priority, conservationists say. And they will continue to prod the agency to act.
"We're not at all happy that EPA has delayed action on refineries," Ballo said. "But the much bigger issue is setting a greenhouse gas standard for power plants. It just makes sense for EPA to focus on the largest sources. That's how we get the biggest reductions."
In December 2010, EPA said it planned to propose standards for utilities by July 2011 and make them final by May 2012. The rule for utilities has been under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget for four months.
Last week, Jackson said she wanted to float the draft form of those standards sometime in early 2012. Spalding, the Sierra Club attorney, is anticipating that the regulation will be released any day now.
"We care about the rules for oil refineries," Spalding said. "But we would really like to see EPA get the power plant rule out the door."