Seeking to reassure major power plant and factory owners that impending regulation of climate-altering gases will not be too burdensome, the Environmental Protection Agency emphasized on Wednesday that future permitting decisions would take cost and technical feasibility into account.
Under the Obama administration, the E.P.A. declared that gases that contribute to global warming are a danger to human health and the environment and thus must be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The agency is starting with the largest sources of such emissions — coal-burning power plants, cement factories, steel mills and oil refineries — and then will extend the regulations to smaller facilities.
Utilities, manufacturers and oil companies have challenged the new rules, saying that the E.P.A. arbitrarily chose the plants it will regulate and that the Clean Air Act never envisioned limitations on carbon dioxide, a ubiquitous substance that is not in itself toxic or hazardous to health. The state of Texas has said it will not abide by the greenhouse gas regulations no matter how the E.P.A. decides to define or enforce them.
Gina McCarthy, the head of the E.P.A. office of air and radiation, said on Wednesday that the agency was simply following the law by beginning the process of regulating greenhouse gases, and that the facilities that will need to obtain permits starting in January are already complying with clean air rules for other pollutants.
She said the agency was taking a moderate approach to the regulation, allowing states and other bodies that grant air pollution permits to consider cost and available technology as factors to be considered when requiring modifications of plant operations.
Industry groups have argued that meeting the new requirements will be so costly and time-consuming that they constitute a de facto moratorium on construction of new plants or major expansions of existing ones.
Ms. McCarthy said that such fears were overblown.
“We are fully prepared to issue permits,” she said at a news conference. “Make no mistake about it: this does not present an opportunity for any construction moratorium. E.P.A. and the states are fully prepared to take this on.”
She also stressed that today’s guidance was not a new regulation, but merely a set of steps that regulators will take in deciding how and when to grant new permits. She said that many facilities would be able to meet the law by adopting more efficient means of producing energy, thus reducing overall emissions. Many such modifications will pay for themselves, she said.
The new guidance allows for the substitution of biomass – wood waste, switchgrass or other agricultural products – for fossil fuels as a way to meet the new air quality rules. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that would generate new income opportunities for American farmers and forestry companies while reducing global warming emissions.
Environmental advocates generally praised the new guidance because it allows companies and states flexibility in meeting the new greenhouse gas standards.
“Energy efficiency is one of the best ways to reduce pollution and save money, particularly in the manufacturing sector,” said Mark MacLeod, director of special projects at Environmental Defense Fund. “Today’s guidance will prepare companies for the permitting process and help them find ways to cut pollution while saving money for themselves and their customers.”
William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, a collection of state air pollution regulators, said in a statement: “E.P.A.’s guidance will provide industry greater certainty, quicker permitting decisions and a smoother path toward greenhouse gas implementation. This should put to rest the exaggerated claims of some stakeholders that greenhouse gas permitting will have disastrous economic consequences.”