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How Do I Know if My Project Needs an Air Permit?

Posted: October 19th, 2022

Authors: Amy M. 

There is not a whole lot that is black and white about air quality permitting.  It can sometimes be hard to determine whether you need to submit an air permit application for a project and if so, what kind.  The goal of this article is to provide some concepts and questions to consider when you are developing projects so that you can reach out to your favorite air quality expert to help you determine if your project needs an air permit.

What is a Project?

You might not think what you are planning to do at your facility rises to the level of being an air permitting project, but you should consider the following questions to help you determine whether your project meets the criteria of an air permitting project:

  • Are there capital costs associated with the project being considered?
  • Does someone have to pick up a wrench, saw, screwdriver, or other tool that will come into contact with something that is on my air permit or serves something that is on my air permit?
  • Are you going to install new equipment that has associated air emissions?
  • Are you going to install equipment or make a change that will make existing equipment have more associated air emissions?
  • Are you changing a process control system so that you will be able to make products more efficiently and increase throughput?
  • Are you relieving a “bottleneck” in your process?
  • Will your project result in reduced process down time?
  • Are you proposing to do something that your air permit does not allow you to do now?

If the answer is yes to any of these, we need to dig a little deeper.

What if my Project Does not Require any Changes to my Permit?

Sometimes staff charged with evaluating projects think that an air permit application is not required because they do not want to make any changes to the air permit.  Even if your project does not contravene or conflict with any conditions in your air permit, you may still need to submit an air permit application.  If you are making a “physical change” or a change in the way you are operating that will increase the air emissions the environment actually sees, you need to evaluate the possible need for air permitting. Simple example: Say you permitted your facility to emit 100 units of emissions, but the environment has only ever seen 50 units of emissions in the ten years that you have operated.  If you are making a change that now allows you to  achieve 100 units of emissions, you will increase actual emissions as a result of your project and will need to evaluate the appropriate air permitting mechanisms.  The right question to ask is whether the project increases the emissions that the environment actually sees, not whether the project increases emissions or throughput above my currently permitted levels.

What Questions Should I Consider when Evaluating my Project?

You should consider the following when evaluating project impacts. Will this project/action:

  • Result in an actual production/throughput increase?
  • Remove any existing production constraints or capacity restrictions?
  • Result in greater available hours of operation/less downtime?
  • Require a physical change to the process or process control system?
  • Result in the use of new and/or greater quantities of fuel or raw materials?
  • Result in process chemistry changes at the facility that impact emissions?

The question is whether your project will result in an actual increase in emissions of any regulated pollutant, not just whether it will increase potential emissions or capacity.

Are there Changes that are Exempt from Permitting?

The short answer is yes.  If you can increase hours of operation at your facility without making any changes and your permit does not restrict you from doing so, that action is not likely to need air permitting.  Your permitting agency may have a list or description of types of activities that do not need to be permitted (and permitting requirements differ by location). Projects that are considered routine maintenance, repair, or replacement (RMRR) are not modifications.  However, figuring out whether something qualifies as RMRR requires an evaluation of the nature and extent of the work; the purpose of the work; the typical frequency of the work; and the cost of the work.  For example: changing the oil and replacing filters in your car is RMRR but replacing the engine is not.  If you are replacing a unit with a bigger unit that will get you more throughput – that’s not RMRR.  If you are replacing your old dingy thing with a new shiny thing because the old dingy thing is at the end of its useful life and you need to replace it to keep your plant running, that is not RMRR, it is a modification that likely needs to be permitted.

What does my Favorite Air Quality Expert need to Know to Tell me if my Project Needs an Air Permit?

If you think your project might need an air permit based on your consideration of the items above, it probably does.  Here is what your favorite air quality expert needs to know to determine whether an air permit application is needed for sure, and what type:

  • Are you installing new equipment?
  • How big is it?
  • What fuel does it burn to operate?
  • Will it need steam and if so, how much steam will it need?
  • Any emissions control equipment?
  • Is there any vendor information for new equipment or replacement parts (e.g., burners)?
  • How will this project affect the rest of the facility?
  • What throughput/production level have we been at? (baseline)
  • Where will throughput/production be at after the project? (projection/potential)
  • Will we go over any permit limits?

Even with all the relevant information (back to the black and white thought) you may still want to request a determination from your friendly neighborhood permit agency to make sure you are on the right track with respect to the right permitting path (or whether you need a permit modification at all).  Regardless of what the agency might say, liability regarding air permitting decisions (permit or no permit) falls on the facility.


Air permitting efforts can require a significant amount of information and resources and depending on your permitting agency’s requirements and the significance of the project air emissions impacts, it can take quite a bit of time before a final permit is issued and you can begin construction of your project.  Therefore, it is best to engage your favorite air quality expert as early in the process as possible.  Also note that a project that can be approved quickly in one state might take a long time in another state because public review, and possibly dispersion modeling, is required for a permit modification.  Effective communication and input from all stakeholders is critical to preparing a technically sound and complete evaluation (and permit application, if needed).  Also remember to tell your air permitting team if something changes with the project so they can address the change as needed. If you have any questions, please reach out!


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