The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Environmental Protection Agency are edging to direct conflict on a major gas drilling permit issue. See www.post-gazette.com/pg/11340/1194896-454-0.stm?cmpid=newspanel4. The battleground is air and how to determine whether groups of air emission sources must be aggregated to calculate legal pollution thresholds.
Determining whether or not a group of sources is operationally one for the purposes of the Clean Air Act permitting is a difficult, fact intensive process no matter what rules are used to guide the factual determination. It is a swamp in the best circumstances that damages all who enter. Now DEP and EPA are in disagreement about the rules or principles that must be followed when doing the factual determination in order to issue what are federal air permits. DEP is processing the air permits and handling the aggregation issue, as the state agency delegated to do so by the EPA.
The battle between DEP and EPA could produce more confusion, litigation, delay, and possibly more pollution. Here is the history.
In December 2010 DEP at my direction issued principles or guidelines for the DEP permitting staff that followed a 3-part test that EPA had directed in 2009 and that were as consistent as possible with a jumbled set of federal court rulings. Following the 2010 election, the December guidelines were first stopped and then replaced by different directives from the new Administration that industry is cheering and environmental groups are attacking. See the Don Hopey story that explains the back and forth.
All the regulatory and legal fencing ultimately will be very much beside the point if total emissions from the gas industry contribute to ground level smog and ozone. Regional and state smog does not hide. It will be measured, and it violates the Clean Air Act at specific levels. If smog levels violate the law, the health of people will be damaged severely, and major restrictions on permitting would be likely.
Does not everyone have a big incentive to avoid that outcome toward which we may be collectively moving? A smarter, better way than reaching that destructive point would be to install available pollution control equipment or use gas or electricity to cut by 90% the pollution that otherwise could result. Deployment of the best technology and approaches should make the aggregation swamp irrelevant.
In this aggregation battle, everybody should remember the maxim: be careful for what you wish.