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Many refineries in U.S. believed to violate air pollution laws Enforcement an issue as expansion sought BUSH ENERGY PLAN

Douglas Jehl - New York Times

Saturday, May 19, 2001

Washington --- At least half of the country's 152 oil refineries are believed to be violating air pollution laws, federal officials say, but with the refineries stretched near capacity, the Bush administration is debating how hard to crack down.

Refinery capacity, Vice President Dick Cheney has said, is among the issues at the center of the country's energy problems and has been a major factor in the recent surge in gasoline prices.

The report released on Thursday by Cheney's energy task force has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department to review their enforcement of the pollution laws in light of the potential to discourage refinery expansion.

The review comes despite a campaign that began two years ago and has continued under the Bush administration, in which about 30 percent of the refining industry have agreed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce illegal air pollutants from several dozen refineries. Other refining companies are in settlement talks with the administration.

But still other companies have resisted the effort to bring them into compliance with pollution standards, federal officials say. Among these is ExxonMobil Corp., the largest of the refinery owners.

Officials of that company have argued that the EPA's interpretation of the laws has been overly strict and that uncertainty over enforcement of the pollution standards has deterred refineries from much-needed expansions.

In testimony before Congress last month, D.H. Daigle, director of Americas refining for the ExxonMobil Refining and Supply Co., urged that enforcement of the rules be suspended ''to prevent enforcement policies from interfering without tangible benefit to industry's ability to meet our energy and fuel supply needs.''

As Cheney's task force was preparing its report, two senators, James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and John Breaux (D-La.), wrote to him to request that the enforcement of the rules be suspended while the EPA reviews their impact.

But environmentalists have warned against any weakening of enforcement, saying it is vital to keep necessary curbs on an industry that represents one of the most significant sources of air pollution.

Under a provision of the Clean Air Act, refineries and power plants that make changes resulting in an increase in pollutants must seek EPA permits, which require that plants offset additional emissions with cuts elsewhere.

The ''new source review'' provision, which was enacted in the late 1970s, has routinely been ignored, EPA officials say, so the enforcement effort has aimed both to bring violators into compliance and to establish a road map for the future.

''Our fear is that they will waive the requirements for new source review for pollution-increasing projects at the refineries, and so you might get more production but you'll also get more pollution,'' said David Hawkins, a former senior EPA official.

The 90-day review ordered by Cheney covers the standards on new source review for both refineries and coal-fired power plants. In the reconsideration, the EPA and the Justice Department will determine whether the pollution standards have been applied too harshly.

The outcome could determine whether the government drops some cases, approaches others more leniently, or even renegotiates settlements already reached.

-- Martin Thompson (, May 19, 2001

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