Trump EPA Eyes Broad Changes to Clean-Air Rule

A one-year delay in the ozone standard is the start of a bigger review process.

The Rocky Mountains rise beyond the Denver skyline.
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
June 7, 2017, 8 p.m.

Amid sweeping changes on climate policy, the Trump administration is also reconsidering some of the Environmental Protection Agency’s core pollution rules, a process that kicked off in earnest this week.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced late Tuesday that the agency was delaying by a year enforcement of an Obama-era revision to the ground-level-ozone standard. The extension, EPA said, would give states more flexibility in complying with the standards—and afford the agency a chance to start a larger review of enforcement.

In a letter to governors, Pruitt said there was “insufficient information” and that an additional year would be “appropriate” to consider which areas of states would be out of compliance with the policy.

That was a welcome development to industry groups, who have criticized the rule as one of the most expensive from EPA, and to Republican-led states fearing that tightening standards would expose them to costly compliance measures. The concerns have become especially acute in Western states, where pollution levels have risen in recent years.

The standard—which seeks to limit ground-level ozone, more commonly known as smog—is one of the required pollution regulations under the Clean Air Act and is supposed to be reviewed on a five-year cycle. Ozone has been linked to asthma attacks and other respiratory and cardiac problems.

The high cost of reducing the components of ozone, however, has made tightening the standards increasingly controversial. President Obama even pulled a lower ozone standard in his first term, before approving one in 2015.

That revision lowered the existing standard of 75 parts per billion, set in 2008, to 70 parts per billion after a lengthy scientific review that determined that the existing standard was leaving Americans breathing unhealthy air. The rule has been challenged in a flurry of lawsuits from both sides—including one in which Pruitt is a party—and a federal court in April granted the Trump administration’s request to suspend action on the litigation while EPA reconsidered its legal stance.

The extension, however, appears to only be the start, putting environmental groups on edge. Under language from the fiscal 2017 omnibus, EPA is also establishing an Ozone Cooperative Compliance Task Force to examine additional flexibilities for states. EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said the task force would be headed by senior policy adviser Mandy Gunasekara and would “assist states as they work to achieve cleaner air, make local environmental decisions, and spur economic investment and development.”

EPA has also been looking to reshape its scientific-advisory panels that form the basis for regulations, including the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee that issues recommendations on where the ozone level should be set.

EPA seems likely to take input from the Hill, where Republicans have pushed for years to tweak the ozone standards. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee recently considered multiple bills that would extend the compliance deadline and reduce the frequency of EPA’s review of the standards (currently, EPA is required to review regulations every five years, although it has slipped on that deadline).

Sen. Jeff Flake, who has sponsored a bill to delay ozone implementation, praised the decision because it “buys Arizona much-needed time,” but added that he remained “committed to advancing a solution that will provide permanent relief from this egregious and unworkable rule.”

Industry groups and Republicans have also said EPA needs to do more to consider naturally occurring ozone levels and exceptional events, such as wildfires, that can dump high levels of pollution, although there are existing ways for states to ask for allowances in such events.

Pruitt has repeatedly framed compliance with pollution standards as a problem on which EPA should work with states. Testifying before the Environment and Public Works Committee about his nomination, Pruitt said the agency’s focus should be on getting non-attainment areas up to existing standards, not “increasing non-attainment percentages.”

In a press release Tuesday announcing the delay, EPA said that areas out of attainment face “increased regulatory burdens, restrictions on infrastructure investment, and increased costs to businesses.” Areas that are not in attainment have to submit plans on how to reduce emissions from cars, factories, and other industrial sites.

But environmentalists have said that argument goes against the science-based framework of the Clean Air Act, which says EPA should consider only the scientific and health evidence when setting its standards. Environmentalists have fought to protect the new standards; in fact, green groups sued EPA saying the 70 ppb standard was too weak because scientists had said it could go as low as 65 ppb.

Green groups also seem likely to sue over the new decision, extending the trail of litigation that has defined the ozone rule. But critics say it’s one step in a broader pattern of Pruitt’s tenure.

“An asthma attack cannot be delayed a year and neither can a trip to the emergency room, but those are the real-world consequences of Pruitt’s actions today in attempting to delay a stronger smog-pollution standard,” said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “Pruitt’s decision shows he would rather listen to a coal executive about what is safe for our families to breathe as opposed to doctors and medical professionals.”

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