Scientists Stumble Into Ozone Combat Zone

The prospect of a new antismog rule has opponents taking aim at an EPA advisory committee.

LOS ANGELES, CA, USA - 21JUL08 - An ariel view of Hollywood with downtown Los Angeles in the background, as seen from the slopes of Mount Hollywood. Pollution and smog cloud the view. 
Christian Science Monitor/Getty
Jason Plautz
See more stories about...
Jason Plautz
April 8, 2014, 1 a.m.

This is sup­posed to be the bor­ing part.

A group of sci­ent­ists pores over bind­ers of health stud­ies and en­vir­on­ment­al re­ports be­fore mak­ing a very pre­lim­in­ary re­com­mend­a­tion to the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency on how EPA should craft a new an­t­i­s­mog rule. The group has no en­force­ment au­thor­ity — it only is­sues non­bind­ing sug­ges­tions — so the sci­ent­ists typ­ic­ally do their work in an en­vir­on­ment devoid of the polit­ic­al vit­ri­ol that en­gulfs later stages of the rule-mak­ing pro­cess.

This time, however, the lab coats are op­er­at­ing un­der fire.

When EPA’s Clean Air Sci­entif­ic Ad­vis­ory Com­mit­tee met in March to pre­pare a re­com­mend­a­tion on the agency’s next rule on ozone pol­lu­tion, it did so amid a bar­rage of cri­ti­cism from con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, who say the group is too opaque — and too tinged with green bi­as — for its re­com­mend­a­tions to be trus­ted.

House Sci­ence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Lamar Smith echoed a slew of GOP at­tacks in a let­ter to Ad­min­is­trat­or Gina Mc­Carthy, in which he ac­cused EPA of re­ly­ing on “secret sci­ence” and charged that the pan­el’s mem­bers were too closely tied to the agency, “un­der­cut­ting in­de­pend­ent sci­entif­ic re­view.”

Wheth­er the cri­tiques are val­id or not, the fact that Re­pub­lic­ans and in­dustry groups are fight­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s new ozone reg­u­la­tion in its most nas­cent stages demon­strates the high stakes over the sweep­ing air-pol­lu­tion rule — and just how bit­ter the fight is about to be­come.

The rule would lower the bar for the per­miss­ible level of ozone pol­lu­tion, a com­pon­ent of smog that is linked to asthma, chest pain, and res­pir­at­ory dam­age. Un­der the Clean Air Act, if a state is found to have ozone levels above the al­low­able threshold, it is sub­ject to ex­pens­ive pol­lu­tion-con­trol pro­ced­ures, in­clud­ing re­stric­tions on busi­ness and trans­port­a­tion plans.

Op­pon­ents say the new threshold would be the most ex­pens­ive reg­u­la­tion ever to come out of EPA — the agency pro­jec­ted that a pre­vi­ous at­tempt to tight­en the stand­ard would have cost between $19 bil­lion and $90 bil­lion — and they are look­ing at every av­en­ue for smoth­er­ing the rule be­fore it starts.

And if the co­ali­tion can’t stop it, it has plenty to gain by delay­ing it.

EPA’s pre­vi­ous at­tempt to lower the ozone stand­ard was snuffed out by the White House in Septem­ber 2011. At the time, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said the de­cision to kill the pro­pos­al — which would have lowered the ozone stand­ards from 75 parts per bil­lion to 70 ppb — had noth­ing to do with polit­ics. But en­vir­on­ment­al groups con­tin­ue to be­lieve oth­er­wise, and sources in­side the ad­min­is­tra­tion said the de­cision came without in­put from EPA. When the pres­id­ent squashed the plan, it drove a wedge between Obama and then-EPA Ad­min­is­trat­or Lisa Jack­son, for whom the rule was a top pri­or­ity.

Now, EPA is con­sid­er­ing lower­ing the threshold to be­low 70 ppb, and en­vir­on­ment­al­ists fear that their read­ing of his­tory will re­peat it­self: The stop-and-start nature of fed­er­al rule-mak­ing means the reg­u­la­tion could be front-page news dur­ing the 2014 or 2016 elec­tion cycles, cre­at­ing a polit­ic­al di­lemma for the White House.

Hop­ing to keep the clock tick­ing on their terms, the Si­erra Club and oth­er green groups have sued EPA to force it to set a leg­ally bind­ing sched­ule that would have the agency is­su­ing a pre­lim­in­ary ozone pro­pos­al by Decem­ber and fi­nal­iz­ing a rule by Oc­to­ber 2015. EPA has said fi­nal ac­tion won’t come un­til at least Nov. 15, 2015.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­cision to blink the first time around has fueled hopes among the rule’s op­pon­ents that Obama will nix the new plan. And so they’re start­ing the at­tack early — hop­ing both to raise the rule’s pro­file and to in­crease the amount of polit­ic­al pain the ad­min­is­tra­tion would suf­fer for en­act­ing it.

“There is no big­ger air reg­u­la­tion across the coun­try than ozone,” said one former Re­pub­lic­an aide, not­ing that op­pos­ing the rule could pay polit­ic­al di­vidends for savvy le­gis­lat­ors. “For law­makers who have been around, they see the writ­ing on the wall,” the former aide said.

The Amer­ic­an Pet­ro­leum In­sti­tute is also well ahead on its mes­saging, re­leas­ing a study last May warn­ing that tight­en­ing ozone lim­its to 60 ppb — a level sought by en­vir­on­ment­al­ists but un­likely to be set by EPA — would put 97 per­cent of U.S. counties in vi­ol­a­tion of the rule, ef­fect­ively put­ting most of the coun­try un­der pol­lu­tion re­duc­tion plans.

Frank O’Don­nell, the pres­id­ent of Clean Air Watch, said this is the most activ­ity he’s seen on a sci­ence re­view since 1997, when in­dustry groups ban­ded to­geth­er to bash an ozone-stand­ard re­view.

“This may be the most co­ordin­ated dirty-air cam­paign I’ve seen since then,” O’Don­nell said. “The [sci­ence com­mis­sion] meet­ing has be­come a peg for a lot of activ­ity that was stirred up by the cor­por­ate groups that would like to nip this thing in the bud.”

En­vir­on­ment­al groups, however, be­lieve the sci­ence sup­ports a new, tight­er stand­ard, and that this will be enough to bring Obama around to their side.

So — un­der the spot­light’s full glare — what did the sci­ent­ists de­cide? For the mo­ment, noth­ing. Their March meet­ing con­cluded without a re­com­mend­a­tion, but the group’s work con­tin­ues, and it has homed in gen­er­ally on a lim­it of 70 ppb or less.

The sci­ent­ists are sched­uled to make a pub­lic re­com­mend­a­tion in May, and when they do, green ad­voc­ates, in­dustry in­siders, Hill war­ri­ors, and the White House will all be watch­ing.

What We're Following See More »
THE QUESTION
How Many VIPs Were the Secret Service Protecting in Philly Last Night?
1 hours ago
THE ANSWER

Seven, according to an official Secret Service tweet.

Source:
‘MOGUL,’ ‘DAREDEVIL’
Candidates’ Code Names Revealed
1 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

The Clintons will retain their Secret Service "code names from the last time they lived in the White House. Hillary Clinton is EVERGREEN and Bill ClintonEAGLE. Donald Trump is MOGUL, according to reports, and Melania Trump MUSE. The vice presidents get code names, too: Mike Pence is HOOSIER—a little on the nose—and his wife HUMMINGBIRD. Tim Kaine is DAREDEVIL, somewhat ambitiously. His wife's? To be determined."

Source:
MOST AGENCIES HAD ALREADY ALLOWED
GSA: Feds’ Uber Rides Are Now OK
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"The Obama administration issued guidance on Wednesday clarifying federal agencies should reimburse employees who use ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft for any travel on official business, effective immediately. The General Services Administration issued a bulletin on the Federal Travel Regulation, cementing a policy many—but not all—agencies had already installed."

Source:
SHIFT FROM ROMNEY’S NUMBERS
Catholics, Highly Educated Moving Toward Dems
2 hours ago
THE LATEST

Catholics who attend mass at least weekly have increased their support of the Democratic nominee by 22 points, relative to 2012, when devout Catholics backed Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, a Morning Consult poll shows that those voters with advanced degrees prefer Hillary Clinton, 51%-34%. Which, we suppose, makes the ideal Clinton voter a Catholic with a PhD in divinity.

‘CROSSED THE RED LINE’
North Korea: U.S. Has Effectively Declared War
3 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"North Korea's top diplomat for U.S. affairs told The Associated Press on Thursday that Washington ... effectively declared war by putting leader Kim Jong Un on its list of sanctioned individuals, and said a vicious showdown could erupt if the U.S. and South Korea hold annual war games as planned next month." Han Song Ryol said: "The United States has crossed the red line in our showdown. We regard this thrice-cursed crime as a declaration of war."

Source:
×