Air | Ecotrope

Greenhouse gas controls: "Back in the state's court"

Ecotrope | Aug. 25, 2010 9:09 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:47 p.m.

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I was struck by a line in today’s news of a pending lawsuit over global warming pollution from oil refineries.

Becky Kelley, campaign director for Washington Environmental Council, said Washington state law requires oil companies to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. But the law’s not being followed, she said.

Four of the five oil refineries in Washington are operating under expired federal air pollution permits. The refineries make up about 8 percent of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions, she said, but none of their permits require them to control those air pollutants.

Then she added this key point: That the U.S. Senate’s failure to pass climate change legislation this summer means “the ball is really back in the state’s court. The problem hasn’t gone away, so we have to find ways to move forward.”

This suit, if it’s filed, could bring a national issue into focus for the Northwest: What are the states’ responsibilities in regulating greenhouse gas emissions? And will the states be under more pressure to step in where federal regulations are lacking?

In a letter released Tuesday, Washington Environmental Council and the Cascade chapter of the Sierra Club say Washington’s Department of Ecology, Northwest Clean Air Agency and Puget Sound Clean Air Agency have violated the Clean Air Act by not requiring oil refineries in the state to use technology or other measures to control greenhouse gas emissions.

“Washington law requires oil refineries in the state to use reasonably available methods for controlling their greenhouse gas emissions,” said Joshua Osborne-Klein, an attorney representing the conservation groups.

But Tupper Hull, spokesman with the Western States Petroleum Association, said “there are no readily available technologies to remove (carbon dioxide), because it’s never been regulated, and it has never been associated with health risk.”

With new federal greenhouse gas rules on their way in 2011, some of that could change. (Good story by the New York Times on the battle over the Environmental Protection Agency regs)

But Kelley told me this afternoon groups like hers are looking at what legal controls already exist within state jurisdictions and how they can be used to crack down on greenhouse gas emissions:

“Until we have new authority that Congress passes or that our states pass, everybody is looking at what we can do with our existing authority to deal with the problem … because inaction is not an option. We have this growing problem that is harming people and the environment. The tools in our toolbox are not perfect ones, but we ought to be using them until we have the political will to build a beter tool.”

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