Why Cantor’s Downfall Is Bad News for EPA

U.S. House Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks during a media availability after a Republican Conference meeting December 13, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The House is scheduled to vote on a bill today that combines the Keystone XL oil pipeline, year-end payroll tax holiday and unemployment insurance in the final passage, which President Barack Obama has threatened that he will veto. 
National Journal
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
June 18, 2014, 1:05 a.m.

The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency is already fa­cing a war on mul­tiple fronts as it works to re­view its smog stand­ards this year. En­vir­on­ment­al­ists have vowed to fight to get the stand­ards as low as pos­sible to get max­im­um health be­ne­fits, while in­dustry groups have been lin­ing up to fight what they say is the most costly en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tion to come out of the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

And now Eric Can­tor’s up­set loss has put one of the ozone rule’s con­gres­sion­al crit­ics — House Whip and pre­sumed next Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Kev­in Mc­Carthy — in po­s­i­tion to keep fight­ing it from the top.

EPA by Decem­ber will pro­pose a re­vi­sion to its reg­u­la­tion for ground-level ozone — or smog — that is linked to asthma and oth­er res­pir­at­ory prob­lems. It’s part of the reg­u­lar re­view of its air-qual­ity stand­ards re­quired un­der the Clean Air Act, and the agency is ex­pec­ted to lower the stand­ard from the 75 parts-per-bil­lion level set un­der the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The crit­ics have fa­mil­i­ar talk­ing points: Com­pli­ance will re­quire costly pol­lu­tion con­trols and lim­its on trans­port­a­tion, and a state or re­gion in vi­ol­a­tion can face heavy fines. En­vir­on­ment­al­ists, mean­while, are par­tic­u­larly sens­it­ive to this rule since EPA’s last at­tempt to lower the stand­ard was squashed by the White House in 2011.

Mc­Carthy’s con­cerns are closer to home. His Bakersfield dis­trict is loc­ated in Cali­for­nia’s Cent­ral Val­ley, home to some of the worst air in the coun­try. How bad? In the Amer­ic­an Lung As­so­ci­ation’s 2014 State of the Air re­port, four cit­ies in the val­ley ranked two through five for the worst ozone qual­ity (the low­est-ranked city, Los Angeles, is just south).

That’s largely due to to­po­graphy. The re­gion is sur­roun­ded on three sides by moun­tains that al­lows pol­lut­ants to pool and get trapped by an in­ver­sion lay­er of hot air. Heavy traffic in the re­gion, coupled with re­cent eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment and tra­di­tion­al ag­ri­cul­ture, means lots of emis­sions. Dur­ing hot sum­mer months, the con­di­tions are ideal for dan­ger­ous levels of smog.

State of­fi­cials have worked to mit­ig­ate the pol­lu­tion by pla­cing re­stric­tions on sta­tion­ary sources, clean­ing of dies­el fuel, and reg­u­lat­ing ag­ri­cul­ture, among oth­er ef­forts. The num­ber of days vi­ol­at­ing the ozone lim­its has dropped stead­ily since 2000. But it’s still been an up­hill climb for the re­gion to meet fed­er­al stand­ards, and Mc­Carthy, along with oth­er rep­res­ent­at­ives of the re­gion, have said a tight­er stand­ard will only open the state up to heavy pen­al­ties.

In 2011, his first year as whip, Mc­Carthy in­tro­duced a bill that would have delayed im­ple­ment­a­tion of new ozone stand­ards un­til a loc­al ad­vis­ory com­mit­tee stud­ied the feas­ib­il­ity of com­pli­ance and would have re­pealed a fine im­posed on the Cent­ral Val­ley (the bill was rendered moot when the stand­ard was pulled).

Mc­Carthy also leads the House En­ergy Ac­tion Team, the part­ner­ship that pro­motes GOP en­ergy pri­or­it­ies and works against EPA reg­u­la­tions. The team’s mis­sion has in­cluded work on the air-qual­ity stand­ards. As a hint of its agenda this term, the group will host a brief­ing Wed­nes­day on air-qual­ity rules fea­tur­ing former EPA air chief Jeff Holmstead.

Mc­Carthy also last week — co­in­cid­ent­ally the same day as Can­tor’s de­feat — wrote to the EPA about a sep­ar­ate Cent­ral Val­ley air is­sue. He and five oth­er Cent­ral Val­ley rep­res­ent­at­ives asked the agency to de­clare an “ex­cep­tion­al event” and spare the state from fines for vi­ol­at­ing par­tic­u­late-mat­ter stand­ards be­cause of a months-long drought. The stand­ard is sep­ar­ate from the ozone rule, but speaks to the re­gion’s chal­lenges; state reg­u­lat­ors had pre­dicted the par­tic­u­late stand­ards would be met were it not for the drought’s im­pact.

The con­cern about back­ground ozone — the nat­ur­ally oc­cur­ring levels — has grown as a talk­ing point among op­pon­ents of a new stand­ard. The Amer­ic­an Pet­ro­leum In­sti­tute, for ex­ample, has cir­cu­lated a map warn­ing that a stand­ard of 60 ppb — likely be­low what the EPA will pro­pose — would put 94 per­cent of the coun­try in vi­ol­a­tion (that map in­cludes wide swaths of rur­al areas that aren’t mon­itored by EPA).

But en­vir­on­ment­al­ists have said that those con­cerns are un­foun­ded and that the pub­lic-health be­ne­fits will out­weigh the costs. Ac­cord­ing to EPA, the stand­ards could avert between 4,000 and 12,000 pre­ma­ture deaths and as many as 111,000 cases of res­pir­at­ory dis­ease by 2020.

It’s too early to know where EPA will go with the ozone stand­ard. The agency’s sci­entif­ic ad­vis­ory coun­cil said in a con­fer­ence call that it would re­com­mend a lim­it between 60 and 70 ppb, but cau­tioned that the up­per lim­it would have a “lim­ited mar­gin of safety” (they have yet to is­sue a form­al let­ter of re­com­mend­a­tion). That’s the same range that the ad­vis­ory board gave EPA in 2010, when the EPA pro­posed a stand­ard of 70 ppb un­til the White House stalled the ac­tion.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists want to see a num­ber lower than 70 — in fact some have said that the start­ing point should be 60 ppb to get the max­im­um health be­ne­fits.

EPA is un­der a court or­der to pro­pose a stand­ard by Decem­ber and fi­nal­ize it by Oc­to­ber 2015, al­though the agency has said its fi­nal ac­tion won’t be un­til Novem­ber of that year. All of which gives Mc­Carthy plenty of time to settle in­to his of­fice be­fore the stand­ards come across his desk.

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