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
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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.

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