Last-minute EPA Determination Exempts Major Industries from Future Greenhouse Gas Emissions Limits

A new Trump EPA rule prevents limits on greenhouse gases emitted by specific industries unless they account for 3% or more of total greenhouse gas emissions.
January 20, 2021

In a direct threat to the Biden administration’s proposed climate change efforts, the outgoing Trump administration released a rule that exempts most polluting industries, including several of Indiana’s major polluters, from future efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The Pollutant-Specific Significant Contribution Finding, set to take effect March 15, will allow the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set GHG limits on power plants, but will exempt other polluting industries, like oil, gas, chemical, steel, cement and aluminum producers from being subject to GHG limits based on the Clean Air Act.

Former EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said the regulation is intended to give industries a clear view of regulatory requirements and expectations.

“EPA’s new significance framework lays out how the agency will determine when stationary sources of greenhouse gases trigger a requirement by the agency to set New Source Performance Standards in the future,” Wheeler said.

The rule is a culmination of multiple efforts to decrease regulations on polluters by making it more difficult for the federal government to institute new environmental regulations.

Under the 2020 Oil and Gas Rule released by the Trump administration in August, the EPA must make a “significant contribution finding” in order to regulate emissions of any pollutant from a stationary source category under the Clean Air Act. That means the EPA must first determine that pollution from a source category contributes significantly to dangerous air pollution in order to regulate it further.

The new rule sets a high bar for meeting that requirement. Under the new rule, a stationary source category must make up 3% of total gross U.S. GHG emissions in order to be seen as a significant contributor of pollution eligible for future GHG limits.

According to the EPA, the electric power industry makes up about 27% of total U.S. GHG emissions, making it a clear target for future emissions limits, but many other industry sectors are too segmented to ever meet the 3% requirement.

As a whole, industrial sector pollution accounted for 22% of total GHG emissions in the U.S. in 2018, or about 1,470.76 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. But sectors are divided into source categories, which allows federal regulators to better determine which regulations should apply to a category but also helps the sources fall into the regulatory gap created by the new rule.

For example, the chemical production and use categories are part of the industrial sector, but, alone, accounts for 1.12% of total U.S. GHG emissions. That is less than the 3% threshold, but still a massive 75.11 million metric tons of greenhouse gases.

In Indiana, eight chemical facilities alone account for 2.1 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, all of which could be exempt from future GHG limits.

The metal production category accounts for 0.75% of total U.S. GHG emissions, with 50.43 million metric tons of GHG emissions. Indiana steel mills account for 32 million metric tons, more than 60% of the nation’s total of metal production GHG emissions.

“EPA cannot simply declare by fiat, contrary to the science, that every other industry is too small to matter,” said David Doniger, senior strategic director of the National Resources Defense Council’s Climate & Clean Energy program in a written statement. “The climate crisis cannot be solved, and our most vulnerable citizens cannot be protected, unless every industry does its part to transition to clean energy and net zero emissions.”

The rule is one of several actions finalized by the Trump EPA during its final months in power that benefits polluters and hampers future environmental regulations.

Earlier this month, the EPA finalized a rule that restricted which scientific research can be used to craft environmental regulations. The EPA also finalized a rule in December that allows the agency to weigh all costs of air pollution regulations while undervaluing health benefits.

Last-minute EPA Determination Exempts Major Industries from Future Greenhouse Gas Emissions Limits