The EPA has released long-awaited strengthened standards for smog (ground-level ozone), as required by the Clean Air Act.
These are important standards, because smog makes it harder for people to breathe and for plants to photosynthesize. We’ve all seen the photos of what China looks like these days!
Under the law, standards must be reviewed every five years to keep up with the latest science. EPA proposes reducing smog levels to 65-70 parts per billion (ppb), down from the current 75 ppb. Based on the comments received, levels could go down further to 60 ppb, says EPA.
"The scientific record clearly shows that a standard of 60 ppb would provide the most public health protection," as levels of 75 ppb put as many as 186 million Americans at risk, says Harold Wimmer, American Lung Association CEO. Other health organizations concur as does EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which reviewed 1000 studies published since 2008.
At 75 ppb, smog still poses serious health threats to people, aggravating asthma and respiratory disease, and heart attacks. It also harms ecosystems by damaging plants and stunting tree growth, and it reduces farm yields.
Ground level ozone is created by chemical reactions between nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the presence of sunlight. Sources include cars, trucks, buses, industrial facilities, power plants and chemical solvents and paints.
In terms of cost-benefit, the standards would produce $3 in health benefits for every dollar spent. Annual costs are estimated at $3.9 billion in 2025 to reach 70 ppb, and $15 billion to reach 65 ppb.
From 1980-2013, average US ozone levels fell 33% says EPA, and most states will be able to meet the new standards through a combination of other regulations underway – low-sulfur gasoline and Tier 3 car standards, and those for power plants emissions. And states will have until 2020-2037 to meet the new standard, depending on the severity of an area’s ozone problem.
The National Association of Manufacturers and American Petroleum Institute gave their completely predictable reaction:
"Current standards already protect public health. Tightening them could be the most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public, with potentially enormous costs to the economy, jobs, and consumers."
But the rule is weak, showing how EPA bends over backwards to meet industry interests. The 75 ppb set in 2008 was higher than agency scientists advised, resulting in lawsuits from public health and environmental groups.
Then in 2011, President Obama interceded, delaying the rules until 2013 to appease Republicans’ desire to reduce "regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty." After a new round of lawsuits from environmental and public health groups , a federal judge directed the EPA to produce rules by December 1, 2014 and a final rule by October 1, 2015.
Supreme Court Takes Mercury Case
The day before EPA released the ozone standards, the Supreme Court accepted the case against regulations that would cut mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants.
Plaintiffs like Duke Energy, Southern Company and American Electric Power allege the EPA didn’t adequately consider the costs of reducing these pollutants. 22 states and trade associations are also part of the suit.
"EPA’s decision to ignore entirely the costs of its decision has led to one of the most far-reaching and costly rules – if not the most costly rule – ever imposed" under the Clean Air Act, argues the Utility Air Regulatory Group. Sound familiar?
The rules have been in effect since 2012 and plants are already complying (or closing). The real reason for going to the Supreme Court is to set a precedent:
"If the court strikes the rule, the precedent is very favorable for industry to challenge air rules based on how costs were taken into consideration. If the court goes the other way, then I think EPA has a lot more latitude to promulgate stricter emissions rules," notes Brandon Barnes, an analyst at Bloomberg.
Lately, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the EPA, upholding its right to regulate pollutants that cross state borders and refusing to take the groundhog day case for the right to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. It will, however, hear arguments against its proposed carbon regulations on new power plants.
All Out Assault on Regulations, Promises GOP
"So long as we have this president the federal agencies can go around Congress," says Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) "But we can make it very, very difficult for them." He takes over as Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in January.
He plans to use the Congressional Review Act to stop EPA’s ozone rules, which allows lawmakers to prevent them from going into effect. But President Obama would veto it.
Their best bet is through the Appropriations process, where lawmakers can restrict how agencies spend money, or they can hold the budget hostage unless regulations are stopped. Committee Chairs can hold lots of hearings, slowing the process down, and they can try to delay or dilute regulatory language. They can go to court.
In any case, regulations need to be finalized and starting to be implemented before Obama leaves office because the next president could also decide to repeal them.
In a deja vu bill of things to come, the House passed the Science Advisory Board Reform Act last month. Amazingly, it prevents scientific experts from advising EPA, but allows industry representatives to do so!
In a NY Times Op-Ed, Paul Krugman says, "In 1992 an overwhelming majority in both parties favored stricter laws and regulation. Since then, Democratic views haven’t changed, but Republican support for environmental protection has collapsed." Why?
Read our article, Give EPA Some Credit: US Has Cleaner Air.