“There are millions of Americans who suffer from asthma, or their kids do,” Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said in an interview. “The American people are entitled to know whether their health is at risk based on the amount of ozone in the air.”
A final rule is due by October 1.
The EPA’s proposal turned a years-long cold war into a hot one. Tightening the rule by just 5 ppb could cost certain industries billions of dollars a year to better rein in ozone-causing emissions.
Those pollutants come from a variety of activities that make modern society tick. Car tailpipes. Power plants. Factories. Refineries. Natural gas wells. Paints and other consumer products. Whenever the EPA proposes new ozone standards, the pushback is rapid.
The National Association of Manufacturers said the rule would be “the most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public.” A U.S. Chamber of Commerce official testified in January that the proposal could cause “potentially devastating economic and employment impacts.” The American Petroleum Institute insisted that the current standards already protect public health.
Businesses haven’t made the same arguments in Canada, which has a voluntary 63-ppb standard. Much of that country has reduced ozone levels below the range under consideration here. But the statements from American industry — especially predictions of economic devastation — echo every U.S. ozone battle for the past four decades.
Not every old argument has been resurrected. No one seems to be seriously suggesting this time, as the American Petroleum Institute did in the 1970s, that the major polluters are trees.
But now, with ozone well below where it was in those years, trade groups and some states say future reductions will be far more difficult.
“What we’re bumping up to in the West especially is … we get things in from California, we get a lot of tropospheric ozone coming in from Asia, and so if EPA puts that ozone level down towards 60 ppb, we could wipe out all human activity and we still would have pretty high ozone,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs with the Western Energy Alliance, an oil-and-gas industry group.
McCabe said the EPA doesn’t ask high-ozone communities to stop growing and will work with areas that have unique challenges. The National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents the officials in 41 states and 116 localities who handle ozone efforts, endorsed a tighter standard this year.
But the last time the EPA considered taking this action, it was staved off by intense lobbying. There’s plenty of that going around again.
Fourteen of the companies and groups that consistently lobbied Congress, the EPA or both on ozone in the past two years have publicly stated their positions on a tighter standard. Only two — the lung association and the League of Conservation Voters — are for it. The rest — business interests, largely trade groups representing manufacturers and energy firms — are against it, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal disclosure data.
“We absolutely at this point are urging the EPA and anybody else who will listen to us to keep the current standard,” said Ross Eisenberg, vice president of energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, which hears about regulatory delays and high expenses from members in ozone “nonattainment” areas. “At a time when … we’re having a manufacturing comeback largely because of energy, this just seems like the wrong way to go.”
A stricter standard could affect almost every state. The EPA says 358 counties had ozone levels in recent years that would violate a 70-ppb rule, about two-thirds of which are out of attainment with the current standard. At 65 ppb, the number rises to 558 counties.
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA can freeze federal highway funds and impose other sanctions on areas that exceed health standards. But regions need only to submit plans and take steps toward achieving goals. McCabe said she expects many communities will be able to push their ozone below the threshold just by reaping the benefits of already enacted federal rules. A major one is a 2017 change in fuel standards.