Regulatory Tracker

Petroleum Refinery Sector Rule (NESHAPs / NSPS)

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Quick Take

The Biden administration proposed amendments to the Petroleum Refinery Sector Rule.

Why It Matters

There are approximately 130 petroleum refineries operating in the United States. Each day, these refineries are capable of turning more than 18 million barrels of crude oil into highly demanded petroleum products, such as gasoline and diesel fuel.

The process of refining crude oil is very complex and can result in pollutant leaks and releases to the atmosphere through flares and vents at the facility. These emissions impact the air quality and health of local communities. One of the most harmful components of crude oil, and one of the pollutants most at risk of leaking, is benzene, a known carcinogen. Pursuant to two Clean Air Act programs, emissions control technology must be installed and operated at refineries to minimize and control releases of air pollutants. These programs are: New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for newly constructed or newly upgraded refineries, and the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), which regulates emissions of toxic air pollutants, such as benzene.

In 2015, EPA updated the Petroleum Refinery Sector Rule, which strengthened requirements for refineries under NSPS and NESHAP. The rule was projected to reduce emissions of toxic air pollutants by 5,200 tons per year and emissions of volatile organic compounds by 50,000 tons per year. It also included provisions for fenceline monitoring of emissions to enable early detection of high levels of pollution and facility malfunctions. EPA estimated that the updated standards and monitoring requirements would lower cancer risks for more than 1.4 million people living near refineries.

The Trump administration amended the Petroleum Refinery NESHAP and NSPS in 2018. The 2018 amendments made technical corrections and revisions to fenceline monitoring, recordkeeping, and reporting requirements. Environmental groups petitioned EPA to reconsider portions of the new rule, and when EPA refused, the environmental groups sued. Air Alliance Houston et al. v. EPA, No. 20-1504 (D.C. Cir.).

Current Status

The Biden administration asked the D.C. Circuit to hold the case challenging the Trump administration’s NESHAP in abeyance, and no further documents have been filed in the case since Feb. 2021. On Apr. 27, 2023, EPA proposed amendments to the NESHAPs for pressure relief devices, emergency flaring, and degassing of floating roof storage vessels, including removing force majeure allowances.

Timeline of Events

Obama Administration
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Dec. 1, 2015 EPA publishes a final rule revising the NESHAP for petroleum refineries and making technical corrections to the NSPS. The revisions include updating the emissions control standards with which petroleum refineries must comply.  The rule also requires additional emissions monitoring and reporting at refineries. Compliance dates for the various requirements are set between Feb. 2016 and Jan. 2019.

Jan. 19, 2016 Two industry trade groups, the American Petroleum Institute and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, submit a petition to EPA for reconsideration of certain aspects of the final rule. The groups also file a petition for review with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, American Fuel & Petrochemical, et al v. EPA, No. 16-01033.

Feb. 1, 2016 EarthJustice and other environmental organizations petition for reconsideration to EPA. The petition alleges that certain sections of the final rule were not included in the proposal and challenges certain aspects of the rule, including exemptions from regulation for releases of hazardous emissions that occur due to equipment malfunction.

Feb. 9, 2016 EPA issues proposed amendments responding to industry’s original petition for review. EPA proposed to extend the compliance date for multiple standards that apply during startup, shutdown, and hot standby. This included an extension to the maintenance vent standards, which regulate when and to what extent refineries may release hazardous air pollutants through vents at the refinery during startup, shutdown, or maintenance.

Mar. 7, 2016 The court grants EPA’s unopposed motion to hold American Fuel & Petrochemical, et al. v. EPA in abeyance until the agency can respond to the petitions for reconsideration.

July 13, 2016 EPA finalizes the amendments proposed in February. The agency extended two compliance dates through the amendments and made technical corrections to the 2015 rule.

Oct. 18, 2016 EPA publishes a proposed rule to receive public comment on the five issues that environmental groups identified in their petition as being newly introduced in the 2015 final rule.

Trump Administration
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April 10, 2018 EPA publishes a proposed rule , proposing revisions to the refinery rule to address industry’s 2016 petition. The rule proposed technical corrections for work practice standards for flares and pressure relief devices as well as revisions to fenceline monitoring, recordkeeping, and reporting.

July 10, 2018 EPA publishes a proposed rule to further extend the compliance date for maintenance vent standards at certain refineries to Jan. 30, 2019. The original compliance date for these refineries was Feb. 1, 2016.

Nov. 26, 2018 EPA publishes a final rule amending the 2015 NESHAP and NSPS for petroleum refineries. EPA did not extend the compliance date for maintenance vent standards as proposed in July and instead made the effective compliance Dec. 26, 2018. The agency did finalize, with minor changes, most of the technical changes from the proposal.

Feb. 4, 2020 EPA publishes a final rule addressing issues raised in petitions for reconsideration of the NESHAP, including work practice standards for pressure relief devices (PRDs), emergency flaring, risk assessment, and fenceline monitoring requirements

Apr. 6, 2020 Environmental groups file a petition for reconsideration, arguing that elements of the new rule violate the Clean Air Act, and that the proposed exemptions will cause “serious harm” to communities exposed to refinery pollution.

Oct. 26, 2020 EPA denies the environmental groups’ petition for reconsideration.

Dec. 17, 2020 Environmental groups sue EPA over the agency’s refusal to reconsider amendments to the final emissions rule. Air Alliance Houston et al. v. EPA, No. 20-1504 (D.C. Cir.).

Biden Administration
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Jan. 20, 2021 President Biden signs EO 13990 that instructs the EPA to review and consider suspending, revising or rescinding Trump era actions. However, the Biden administration does not list the Petroleum Refinery Sector rule in its non-exclusive list of actions to review.

Feb. 23, 2021 The EPA asks the D.C. Cir. to hold the case filed in Dec. 2020 in abeyance. Air Alliance Houston et al. v. EPA, No. 20-1504 (D.C. Cir.).

May 13, 2022 Environmental Integrity Project releases a new report and data map showing that many oil refineries release benzene above levels allowed by the Petroleum Refinery Sector Rule.

Apr. 27, 2023 EPA proposed amendments to the NESHAPs for pressure relief devices, emergency flaring, and degassing of floating roof storage vessels, including removing force majeure allowances.