EPA’s New Smog Rules Leave Just About Everyone Mad

Greens accuse administration of buckling on ozone rule again.

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. 
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Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
Oct. 1, 2015, 12:22 p.m.

After a ban­ner second term that has seen the most ag­gress­ive ac­tion on cli­mate change from any ad­min­is­tra­tion, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion just opened up a new fault line with en­vir­on­ment­al­ists.

The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency today re­leased its new air-qual­ity stand­ards for ground-level ozone, lower­ing the al­low­able level from 75 parts per bil­lion to 70 ppb. That’s well short of what en­vir­on­ment­al­ists and pub­lic-health groups had been push­ing and a level they say wouldn’t do enough to pro­tect pub­lic health.

In­dustry groups and Re­pub­lic­ans, mean­while, are not likely to be any hap­pi­er—they have been long op­posed to any stand­ard lower than the status quo be­cause of the po­ten­tial cost of com­pli­ance.

Ozone is a ma­jor com­pon­ent of smog and res­ults from a mix­ture of pol­lut­ants like ni­tro­gen ox­ide that re­act in heat. The res­ult­ing pol­lu­tion has been linked to res­pir­at­ory dis­eases like asthma and heart dis­ease, and it has been linked to pre­ma­ture death.

EPA said that the new stand­ard would avert 230,000 asthma at­tacks and up to 660 pre­ma­ture deaths a year by 2025, with an­nu­al pub­lic-health be­ne­fits of between $2.9 bil­lion and $5.9 bil­lion. That’s com­pared with the an­nu­al costs of $1.4 bil­lion.

But en­vir­on­ment­al­ists have said that more gains were pos­sible with a lower stand­ard and asked for it to be set at 60 ppb, which they said would do the most to pro­tect vul­ner­able groups like chil­dren and the eld­erly. And hav­ing been dis­ap­poin­ted on the ozone stand­ard in the past, greens have in­dic­ated they could take leg­al ac­tion against EPA.

“No mat­ter how the EPA tries to spin it, this is truly a blem­ish on the pres­id­ent’s en­vir­on­ment­al leg­acy,” said Frank O’Don­nell, pres­id­ent of Clean Air Watch.

On a press call, EPA ad­min­is­trat­or Gina Mc­Carthy de­fen­ded the “com­plex pro­cess” to get to 70 ppb, say­ing that the “best avail­able clin­ic­al data” had shown that 72 ppb was ac­tu­ally the low­est ex­pos­ure level that would cause ad­verse health ef­fects for healthy adults. Set­ting it at 70 ppb, she said, would help to “pro­tect all people from this level of ex­pos­ure,” in­clud­ing chil­dren and older Amer­ic­ans.

“This up­dated stand­ard will sub­stan­tially in­crease pub­lic-health pro­tec­tion. There is ab­so­lutely no ques­tion about that,” Mc­Carthy said. She also poin­ted out that the stand­ard only al­lows levels as high as 70 ppb on cer­tain days, so the norm will be be­low that throughout the year.

Greens, however, are still not sat­is­fied and say that Mc­Carthy’s ex­plan­a­tion does not ac­count for a suf­fi­cient mar­gin for the most vul­ner­able pop­u­la­tions.

EPA’s own sci­ence ad­visers last year re­com­men­ded a range of between 60 ppb and 70 ppb, but they cau­tioned that ex­pos­ure to the up­per end of that spec­trum could “res­ult in sig­ni­fic­ant ad­verse ef­fects,” such as im­paired lung de­vel­op­ment and res­pir­at­ory dis­ease. The lower end of the re­com­men­ded range, the Clean Air Sci­entif­ic Ad­vis­ory Com­mit­tee said, “would cer­tainly of­fer more pub­lic-health pro­tec­tion.”

On a call with re­port­ers this week, Earthjustice at­tor­ney Dav­id Bar­on said there was a “good like­li­hood” that greens could sue the EPA over a 70 ppb stand­ard. He said a 70 ppb level would rep­res­ent “noth­ing short of a be­tray­al of the Clean Air Act’s prom­ise.”

Greens have long been wary of the White House’s ap­proach to set­ting the ozone stand­ard after a 2011 pro­pos­al was pulled over con­cerns about its eco­nom­ic im­pact, leav­ing a 2008 stand­ard of 75 ppb in place. Greens ul­ti­mately sued again, res­ult­ing in a court-ordered dead­line to re­lease the rule Thursday.

In­dustry groups—who have called the ozone rule the most ex­pens­ive reg­u­la­tion to come out of the White House—didn’t want the agency to lower the stand­ard at all but in­stead keep it at 75 ppb. They’ve said that any lower stand­ard would plunge too much of the coun­try out of com­pli­ance, open­ing up states and counties to ex­pens­ive fines and pol­lu­tion con­trols.

Ac­cord­ing to EPA, just 14 counties out­side of Cali­for­nia would be out of com­pli­ance with the new stand­ard in 2025. (Cali­for­nia has high levels of ozone.) Oth­er en­vir­on­ment­al rules, such as fuel-eco­nomy stand­ards and the car­bon-pol­lu­tion lim­its for power plants will help re­duce the pol­lut­ants that com­bine to form ozone, help­ing states meet the stand­ards.

In a state­ment Thursday, Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Man­u­fac­tur­ers pres­id­ent Jay Tim­mons said that a “worst-case scen­ario was avoided” with the 70 ppb stand­ard but that the rule was still too tough.

“However, make no mis­take: The new ozone stand­ard will in­flict pain on com­pan­ies that build things in Amer­ica—and des­troy job op­por­tun­it­ies for Amer­ic­an work­ers,” Tim­mons said.

Op­pon­ents have called on Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress to put a stop to the rules. There are sev­er­al House and Sen­ate bills that would put a hold on the ozone stand­ard un­til all states had com­plied with the cur­rent 75 ppb levels, and re­cent spend­ing bills have in­cluded riders to put a stop to the reg­u­la­tions.  

There was a flurry of lob­by­ing activ­ity in the lead-up to the rule’s re­lease, with groups on both sides meet­ing al­most daily with the White House. In­dustry groups led by NAM and the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce ran state-spe­cif­ic cam­paigns throughout the sum­mer and blas­ted the air­waves with ads warn­ing about the cost of com­pli­ance.

The stand­ards also would not be­gin tak­ing ef­fect un­til 2020 at the earli­est due to the long time line of air-qual­ity stand­ards; states are still work­ing on im­ple­ment­ing plans for the last re­vi­sion of the ozone rules.

However, state and loc­al of­fi­cials seem to be pleased with the middle-ground ap­proach from EPA. The ozone stand­ard has al­ways car­ried plenty of ques­tions with it; the com­pon­ents of ozone are also nat­ur­ally oc­cur­ring or can drift in from across state lines, rais­ing ques­tions about how EPA would make al­low­ances for such is­sues.

In a state­ment, Bill Beck­er of the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Clean Air Agen­cies, which rep­res­ents state and loc­al air groups, said EPA “has threaded the needle” and “ap­pro­pri­ately bal­anced the views of di­ver­gent stake­hold­ers.”

Demo­crat­ic Gov­ernors John Hick­en­loop­er of Col­or­ado and Terry McAul­iffe of Vir­gin­ia had both raised ques­tions about a lower ozone stand­ard be­cause of the im­pact it could have on their eco­nom­ies, with McAul­iffe call­ing for a 70 ppb stand­ard. In an Au­gust in­ter­view with a Den­ver TV sta­tion, Hick­en­loop­er said he was “very con­cerned” about a tight­er stand­ard, say­ing, “To set up a stand­ard where you know you’re not go­ing to be able to achieve it, and ob­vi­ously we’re at a unique dis­ad­vant­age be­cause we’re a mile high.

The EPA rule does ac­count for ex­treme con­di­tions and has tried to tail­or the rule to ac­count for the nat­ur­al ques­tions about ozone pol­lu­tion. Mc­Carthy said that EPA did not ex­pect back­ground ozone to in­ter­fere with any state’s abil­ity to meet the stand­ards. Cali­for­nia, which has high levels of ozone, has a longer time line for com­pli­ance.

This post has been up­dated.

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