The federal agency is proposing rule changes that would allow ethanol plants to more than double the amount of chemicals they put in the air. Opponents say the move would harm public health.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to boost the construction of larger ethanol plants by more than doubling the amount of chemicals they can spew into the air before designating them "major sources" of pollution, a status that requires closer monitoring and tighter pollution controls.
A bipartisan group of 33 senators and representatives, including five from Minnesota, has signed a letter urging the agency to loosen what they called "unwarranted" constraints on the industry. "Increased renewable energy sources are key components to our nation's energy security," the letter says.
But some state and local air pollution control officials say that the industry already is growing at breakneck pace and that more liberal regulations would only contribute to air pollution. Some environmental groups said the EPA's "preferred" rule changes could endanger public health and contribute to global warming by encouraging more ethanol plants to burn coal rather than natural gas, which has volatile price swings.
The EPA considers the proposed rule change a priority and expects to make a decision in early 2007, a spokesman said this week.
Bill Roddy, environmental affairs manager for ICM Inc., a Kansas company that designs and builds ethanol plants nationwide, said in an interview that the proposed rules would eliminate an exhaustive review process that the EPA requires for some larger plants. Such reviews can take up to two years, he said. The proposed changes would not harm the environment, Roddy said, because ethanol plants already use what's know as "Best Available Control Technology" to reduce emissions.
The Governors' Ethanol Coalition, representing 33 governors, sent a letter urging the change. Minnesota Republicans Sen. Norm Coleman and Reps. Gil Gutknecht, John Kline and Mark Kennedy also have signed on, as has DFL Rep. Colin Peterson.
But the Regional Air Pollution Control Agency (RAPCA), which operates in six Ohio counties, strongly opposed the EPA's proposal. "[T]here is no supporting evidence that the environmental regulations must be weakened to enhance the growth of the ethanol fuel industry," the agency wrote.
In May, Sheryl Corrigan, then the commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), wrote to the EPA and advised caution. The EPA should consider the clean air controls that existing plants have had to install and ensure that new plants don't get an unfair advantage under the proposed rule change, she said.
Corrigan and her staff said in an interview that they believed the EPA's proposal would have little effect because larger ethanol plants will probably produce enough hazardous air pollutants to trigger the stricter controls in any case.
"Honestly, we don't think that this is where the EPA should be heading," Corrigan said later in an interview.
Nebraska, one of the top states in ethanol production, remained officially neutral on the proposal. But its Department of Environmental Quality said the change would not significantly affect the industry's growth rate.
In 2002, five plants were proposed in Nebraska with an average annual capacity of 56 million gallons. Last year, 11 proposed plants averaged 95 million gallons. As of May, three proposed plants averaged 187 million gallons and four more proposals were pending, the agency said.
Two organizations representing state and local clean air officials -- the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials -- said the EPA's proposal "will allow -- and, in fact, invite -- substantial increases in emissions."
Environmental groups generally endorse the goal of displacing gasoline with renewable fuels such as ethanol, but not at any cost.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) each predicted that the EPA's proposed rule changes would increase the likelihood of coal being used in the production of ethanol. "This shift from natural gas to coal has serious implications, both for global warming and for releases of criteria air pollutants and toxic air emissions," the NRDC wrote in May.
Heron Lake BioEnergy is building Minnesota's first coal-fired ethanol plant in Jackson County, and Agassiz Energy is planning a coal-burning plant near Erskine, Minn.
"It's just further evidence of how the ethanol plants that are getting proposed and built here are not about doing the right thing environmentally," said Janette Brimmer, MCEA legal director.
Bob Dineen of the Renewable Fuels Association scoffed at the idea that the proposed rule change would facilitate the use of coal. "You know, that's nuts, because nobody's rushing to go to coal," he said.