EPA Both Increases and Delays Public Access to Critical Greenhouse Gas Data

In August, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made several changes to the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Mandatory Reporting Rule that will improve, but also delay, public access to critical air pollution data. The EPA will launch an electronic tool to collect and make public GHG pollution data from companies. However, the agency allowed firms in several industries to delay disclosing the factors used to calculate their GHG emissions.

Launched in 2009, the EPA’s GHG Reporting Program requires facilities to annually report GHG emissions data. The first round of data will be submitted electronically by Sept. 30. EPA will make non-confidential GHG data publicly available by the end of 2011, while deferring – until 2013 and 2015 – reporting requirements for certain data elements used to calculate emissions.

GHG Electronic Reporting Tool

On Aug. 22, the EPA launched a new electronic tool to enable 28 industrial sectors – equal to approximately 7,000 large industrial GHG emitters and suppliers – to submit their emissions reports to the EPA via the Internet. This includes power plants, petroleum refineries, and landfills. Prior to the launch, the EPA tested the electronic GHG Reporting Tool (e-GGRT) with more than 1,000 stakeholders, including industry associations, states, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to make sure it was clear and easy to use. A summary of the testing is publicly available via the EPA’s GHG Reporting Program’s website.

The tool marks yet another move by the EPA toward electronic reporting. In the past six months, the EPA has required electronic reporting for new chemical notices under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and announced its plans to require electronic reporting of all Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data. Electronic reporting comes with numerous benefits, such as significantly reduced data errors, easier public access, and faster identification of environmental and health risks. In addition, electronic reporting reduces costs for both the reporting facilities and the agencies associated with collecting and disseminating national data.

We hope that when the GHG tool produces public data, it will also provide tools that allow users to easily analyze large sources of GHG pollution in their areas, compare performance, and track industry averages. If the data is presented properly, the public will be able to use the information to ensure that emitters take responsibility for the way they are contributing to climate change. Industries can use the data to compare their performance against other companies in their sector, help decrease their carbon pollution, increase efficiency, and save money.

Public reporting of pollution has proven a powerful tool in fostering public awareness of environmental problems and generating significant reductions in emissions. For instance, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act created TRI, a national database of toxic emissions reported by industrial sources, in 1986, and the EPA began taking data a year later. Since that time, the private sector has reduced the amount of toxins it releases by more than half.

Deferring Certain GHG Data

In a final rule published on Aug. 25, just days after the electronic reporting tool was launched, the EPA deferred reporting requirements for certain data elements used to calculate GHG emissions. The elements covered by the rule include production and throughput quantities, product compositions, raw materials used, and other process-specific information.

The agency set two deadlines for reporting these data elements, depending on the data involved. The EPA deferred one set of inputs to March 31, 2013, despite the fact that the agency claimed such inputs could be quickly evaluated; the reason for the delay is unclear. This deadline applies to electric transmission systems, stationary fuel combustion, underground coal mines, municipal solid waste landfills, industrial wastewater treatment, electric equipment manufacturers, and industrial waste landfills.

The agency delayed the second set of inputs, which require longer assessment, until March 31, 2015. This affects several data elements that must be reported by stationary sources that combust fuels, including petrochemical production, iron and steel production, industrial wastewater treatment, petroleum refineries, lead production, and more than 20 other sectors.

The agency delayed this reporting requirement to further examine industry concerns that the data elements contain confidential business information (CBI) and should not be disclosed. Pursuant to the Clean Air Act, "emissions data" cannot be classified as CBI. On July 7, 2010, the agency proposed that all GHG emission equation inputs are considered "emission data" and therefore, under the Clean Air Act, must be made available to the public.

The EPA received extensive industry input in response to its July proposal, raising concerns that many GHG emissions inputs may include CBI. To resolve industry concerns about CBI, EPA released a proposed rule in December 2010 deferring the input reporting requirement until March 31, 2014.

In comments submitted to the EPA regarding the proposed 2014 deferral, environmental organizations stated, "The deferral would seriously degrade the reporting system's data quality, deny the public its legal right to this vital emission data, and disrupt other reporting programs."

The EPA will have difficulty designing new GHG limits for industries without data on emissions input, the groups argued. "The delay proposed for reporting the verification data elements means that no one will be looking over industry's shoulders," they asserted

Several states share similar concerns about the deferral, stating that the data is crucial to designing effective policies to address climate change. As a result, some states have begun limiting GHG emissions on their own. For example, Washington State is creating its own greenhouse gas inventory, and California has started its own cap-and-trade program. Both states had planned to coordinate their plans with the federal program. Additionally, the six New England states, along with New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware, have joined a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative’s cap-and-trade program for carbon dioxide.

Despite these concerns about the initial deferral decision, the EPA not only left the deferral in place, it extended it for an extra year. This appears to be in direct contradiction of the agency's stated goal to minimize the use of CBI claims and other gamesmanship that industry uses to hide crucial environmental health information from the American people.

back to Blog