Buss: EPA regs backfire on Detroit Marathon plant

Kaitlyn Buss
The Detroit News

Detroit’s Marathon Petroleum Co. refinery is seeking permit approval from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to increase its sulfur dioxide emissions. Nearby residents — and now, Mayor Mike Duggan and some state lawmakers — are understandably resisting more pollution in their neighborhood, already the dirtiest in Michigan.

And Marathon is scrambling to find ways to contain the excess emissions.

But ire against the company is misdirected, and potential pleas to the Environmental Protection Agency will fall on deaf ears. That’s because it’s the EPA’s Tier 3 fuel standards that would force the refinery to emit more pollution in the first place.

It’s the kind of unintended consequence that’s bound to happen when federal agencies are given unrestricted power and held responsible for none of its exercise.

The EPA’s new fuel standards, scheduled to take effect next year, mandate lower sulfur gasoline. But to meet those requirements, Marathon must install new equipment to more fully process the crude oil, which in turn releases a bit more sulfur dioxide into the environment.

The company has argued it can make clean gasoline and still protect residents’ health. Over the past 15 years, new technology has decreased pollution from sulfur dioxide and other materials in the area by 70 percent.

But residents’ real beef is with the EPA, which is mandating fuel regulations — and the consequences that come them.

Even the chairman of the southeast Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club said the EPA’s desire for cleaner gas is understandable, but it shouldn’t come “at the expense of local people.”

The Duggan administration has made it clear he has no use for a Marathon plant in Detroit, threatening to sue. But whom would he sue — and how could Michigan get along with the refinery’s output?

The MDEQ — though lacking in its own judgment, a fact made clear by the Flint water crisis — is just a middleman in this debate between the EPA, and well, itself.

Which regulation would the agency decide is more important: clean air or clean fuel? These kinds of decisions will likely multiply the more the agency regulates.

“That would be for the EPA to discern,” said Marathon spokesman Jamal Kheiry regarding the potential confrontation between its own regulations. The company clearly wants no part of the debate, but to try to meet changing requirements.

The agency shouldn’t be allowed to get away with the havoc it wreaks issuing regulations with no thought to how it will affect the lives and livelihoods of those who must adjust to its whims. Worse, its inaction in Flint has proven it can’t even be trusted to enforce the costly regulations it demands.

The EPA must take into consideration the reality businesses and citizens live with when it regulates them.

For Detroiters, its fuel regulations will exacerbate a problem local residents have been trying to control for decades by creating more, not less, pollution. It will also threaten the region’s only refinery, a source of work for hundreds of people and an absolutely critical piece of the state’s manufacturing and energy infrastructure.

And the EPA’s fuel regulations promise to upend the robustness once again experienced by the auto industry over the past several years, a sure threat to the region.

Perhaps these fed-up Detroiters will finally force the EPA to realize it can’t have its cake and eat it, too.

Kaitlyn Buss is an editorial writer at The Detroit News.