FocusEnvironmental groups challenge ExxonMobil Texas cracker project

12 April 2013 21:41  [Source: ICIS news]

Environmental groups challenge ExxonMobil Texas cracker projectBy Al Greenwood

HOUSTON (ICIS)--Environmental groups seek to challenge ExxonMobil's application to receive a critical air permit for the cracker that the global oil and petrochemical giant plans to build at its plant complex in Baytown, Texas.

The ethane cracker will have a capacity of 1.5m tonnes/year, and it should start operations in 2016. The cracker will feed two new 650,000 tonne/year polyethylene (PE) lines.

In a statement, ExxonMobil said on Friday that its permit application includes environmental controls and technology that meets or exceeds state and federal requirements.

"Our state-of-the-art environmental technology will enable ExxonMobil’s planned chemical expansion at Baytown to operate within existing Texas permitted emission limits," the company said.

"The permit proposal is within existing federal permit limits, implements the most stringent emissions control for all sources (Tier 1 Best Available Control Technology), and incorporates the latest monitoring technology, including online, real-time metres to measure emissions for every major piece of equipment," ExxonMobil said.

Before ExxonMobil can start construction on the cracker, it needs to receive an air permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state's environmental regulator.

The TCEQ allows groups to comment before it decides to issue such an air permit.

Three environmental groups jointly sent a comment to the regulator: the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), the Sierra Club and Air Alliance Houston.

Two of the groups, the EIP and Air Alliance Houston, are requesting that a contested-case hearing be held on ExxonMobil's application for an air permit.

If such a hearing is granted, an administrative-law judge will consider ExxonMobil's permit application and the groups' objections. The judge will then make a recommendation to the TCEQ in regard to issuing the permit. The TCEQ would then decide on whether it should grant or deny ExxonMobil's application.

There still many steps before the administrative-law judge would make a recommendation on ExxonMobil's application. As a result, it is unclear when the hearing before the judge would take place.

The commission should not grant ExxonMobil an air permit, the groups said in their comments to the TCEQ, as the application "wholly fails to comply with basic requirements of both the federal and Texas Clean Air Acts".

Specifically, the groups contend that the new cracker should be treated as a new major stationary source of air pollution. As a result, the cracker should be subject to the permitting requirements under the federal New Source Review.

However, the groups allege that ExxonMobil wants the cracker to fall under the requirements of its existing permit. That permit, they allege, falls under the state's Plant-wide Applicability Limit (PAL) rules.

The groups found what they allege are several problems with ExxonMobil's existing permit. Its PAL portion was issued in 2005 as an amendment to a flexible permit, the groups allege.

The Texas flexible permitting programme has been a subject of contention between the state and the nation's environmental regulator, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Ultimately, the EPA rejected the state's flexible permitting programme in 2010.

Texas has since made revisions to its PAL rules so as to comply with the federal Clean Air Act.

However, ExxonMobil's existing PAL precedes those revisions, the groups allege. As a result, the groups contend that it is ineffective.

Essentially, ExxonMobil wants its air-permit application subject to a permitting regime that is outdated, and which the EPA has deemed as inadequate, said Gabriel Clark-Leach, a lawyer with the EIP.

The integrity project and the other groups also point to a letter from the EPA that told ExxonMobil that permits issued under the PAL rules cannot replace federal requirements.

In addition to the PAL problems, the environmental groups allege that they have found other deficiencies in ExxonMobil's air-permit application.

For example, they allege that ExxonMobil failed to adequately explain how it came up with the new cracker's planned emissions. Also, critical information about the project has been withheld from public view, the groups allege.

The groups allege that the project would not sufficiently control emissions to protect health.

If built, the cracker would worsen the already-bad air quality in Harris County, where the cracker would be built, the groups allege. It would also further burden the health of those who live and work there.

By: Al Greenwood
+1 713 525 2645

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