Ever since EPA began considering how BACT analysis would be applied to greenhouse gas emissions, there has been concern that EPA would use its BACT authority to “redefine the source” – with the particular concern that BACT for a coal plant would now be to burn natural gas instead. In Helping Hands Tools v. EPA, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this week gave some protection to biomass plants from such redefinition of the source. However, other types of facilities will get no comfort from the decision.
Helping Hands Tools involved a challenge to a PSD permit issued to Sierra Pacific for a cogeneration plant to be located at one of its existing lumber mills. Under EPA’s BACT Guidance, Sierra Pacific stated that the purpose of the CoGen plant was to use wood waste from the mill and nearby facilities to generate electricity and heat. Relying in part on the 7th Circuit decision in Sierra Club v. EPA, which held that it would impermissibly redefine the source to require a mine-mouth coal generating plant to consider different fuels in its BACT analysis, the 9th Circuit found that EPA was reasonable in determining that, because a fundamental purpose of the CoGen plant was to burn wood waste, it would impermissibly redefine the source to require Sierra Pacific to consider solar power as part of its BACT analysis.
Importantly, the Court also rejected the plaintiffs’ request that Sierra Pacific consider greater use of natural gas. The Court concluded that very limited use of natural gas for the purposes of startup, shutdown, and flame stabilization did not undermine the fundamental purpose to burn wood waste. This is critical to source-located biomass facilities, because EPA’s GHG Permitting Guidance specifically says that greater use of an existing fuel should be considered in the BACT analysis:
"unless it can be demonstrated that such an option would disrupt the applicant’s basic business purpose for the proposed facility."
Unfortunately, the language of the decision appears to me to give EPA substantial leeway in future BACT analyses to redefine the source in other cases. It seems to me that, building on the 7th Circuit decision, the Court has simply created an exception to potential source redefinition in circumstances where the location of the facility justifies a very narrow fuel selection. If a coal plant intends to burn coal from the mine next door, ok. If a lumber mill intends to burn its own wood waste, ok. Otherwise, however, all bets are off.
What is particularly troubling was the Court’s acknowledgement that the GHG BACT guidance is vague, and its deference to EPA’s application of its own vague guidance. This is precisely the concern I noted when the Guidance was first issued. Time will tell, but I foresee some fairly extreme BACT determinations being blessed by some very deferential courts.