Government rulemakingAfter receiving input from stakeholders including community groups, industry and the states, the EPA is proposing to update the toxic air pollution standards for petroleum refineries to protect neighborhoods located near refineries. The agency describes the change as a “common-sense” proposal that includes new monitoring requirements. The goal: to further reduce toxic pollution from flaring and other processes.

Exposure to toxic air pollutants, such as benzene, can cause respiratory problems and other serious health issues, and can increase the risk of developing cancer.

Healthier communities or "uncertain" environmental benefits?

“This proposal will help us accomplish our goal of making a visible difference in the health and the environment of communities across the country,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

The EPA says the steps are cost-effective steps and will have no noticeable impact on the cost of petroleum products at the approximately 150 petroleum refineries around the country.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) disagrees. The API’s Howard Feldman says the proposal “comes with a high price tag but uncertain environmental benefits while emissions continue to fall under existing regulations.”

What would change

The agency’s proposal would, for the first time, require monitoring of air concentrations of benzene around the fenceline perimeter of refineries to assure that emissions are controlled and these results would be available to the public. The proposal would also require upgraded emission controls for storage tanks including controls for smaller tanks; performance requirements for flares to ensure that waste gases are properly destroyed; and emissions standards for delayed coking units which are currently a significant unregulated source of toxic air emissions at refineries.

When these proposed updates are fully implemented, EPA estimates toxic air emissions, including benzene, toluene, and xylene, would be reduced by 5,600 tons per year. Volatile organic compound emissions would be cut by approximately 52,000 tons per year.

Risk assessments differ

Feldman says the rule is intended to evaluate what risk, if any, is posed to the public from refinery emissions. “But EPA has already concluded the risks associated with refinery emissions are low and the public is protected with an ample margin of safety.”

He added that U.S. refineries have been reducing emissions for decades and will continue reducing emissions under existing regulations.

The EPA is issuing this proposal as part of a process outlined in the Clean Air Act that requires the agency to evaluate the emissions standards currently in place to determine whether there is any remaining risk to public health or the environment and whether there have been any new developments in practices, processes and control technologies. In a series of recent enforcement cases, EPA has compelled the use of innovative pollution control practices such as flare gas recovery and flare efficiency that are reducing toxic air pollution in communities. These efforts demonstrate that the proposed standards are practical and achievable today. More information about these cases:

The agency will take comment on the proposal for 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register. The agency plans to hold two public hearings, near Houston and Los Angeles, and will finalize the standards in April 2015. Details on the public hearings will be available on EPA’s website shortly.

Additional information about the proposal: