New EPA Ozone Standards: A Breath of Fresh Air? Georgetown International Environmental Law Review

Alexandra Austin - EPA Ozone Stndrds

New EPA Ozone Standards: A Breath of Fresh Air?

By Alexandra Austin, Staff Contributor

On November 26, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its long awaited proposal calling for tougher regulation of ground-level ozone emissions. The new regulations would strengthen the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) in response to a growing belief among environmental and scientific communities that the current standards are insufficient to satisfy the EPA’s mandate to protect human health and welfare—particularly with regard to those populations prone to negative health effects from smog. These at risk populations include children, the elderly, and people of all ages with certain lung conditions, such as asthma.

The proposed regulations also came in the face of a court-ordered December 1st deadline. The standard for ozone was last set by the 2008 Bush administration. Despite the Clean Air Act’s calling for review of these regulations every five years, they were put on hiatus by the Obama administration pending the President’s 2012 re-election and the 2014 mid-term elections. Following a ninety-day opportunity for notice and comment, three public hearings, and what is sure to be much heated debate, the new rules would be set to take effect October 15th of next year.

“The new standards, which would primarily target power plants and factories, call for a reduction from the current ozone threshold of 75 parts per billion (ppb) to a range of 65-70 ppb.”

The EPA will also accept comment on a 60 ppb threshold. Once in effect, the EPA would revise its designation of attainment and nonattainment states by October 2017, likely based on 2014-2016 air quality data. Nonattainment area states would have until 2020 to late 2037 to meet the new standards, with attainment dates varying based upon the ozone level in the area.

While states will ultimately be in charge of how they implement these new requirements, many key industry players are already heralding them “the most expensive regulation[s] ever imposed.” The EPA estimates that, in 2025, the new standards will cost industries and localities anywhere from $3.9 billion to $15 billion, depending in large part on whether the 65 ppb or 70 ppb threshold is implemented. These costs, EPA says, are outweighed by the estimated annual benefits of $6.4 billion to $13 billion in 2025 for a 70 ppb standard or $19 billion to $38 billion for a 65 ppb standard. According to the Agency, these benefits will be realized “from avoiding asthma attacks, heart attacks, missed school days and premature deaths.”

“If correct, this comes out to roughly $3 in health benefits for every $1 spent on implementing the stricter standards.”

Opponents of the proposed regulation, however, are adamant that the costs will be much higher. A NAM-commissioned study estimates that the new standard could cost the economy $270 billion a year from 2017 to 2040. Some claim that the tougher standards are premature and unnecessary. Howard Feldman, the director of regulatory affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, stated that “air quality has improved dramatically over the past decades and will continue to improve under the existing standards.” Others claim that the strictness and the timing of the standards will multiply the already crushing blow to industry and the economy. The National Association of Manufacturers, for example, responded to the proposal by saying that it “comes at the same time dozens of other new EPA regulations are being imposed that collectively place increased costs, burdens and delays on manufacturers, threaten our international competitiveness and make it nearly impossible to grow jobs.” Indeed, according to the Congressional Research Service, as of 2010, 119 million people, or 40 percent of the U.S. population, already live in areas that are classified as being in “nonattainment” for the primary ozone NAAQS under the current, more lenient, standard.

Yet, those in favor of the stricter standards point out that this is just another instance of industry “crying wolf.” One proponent points to the fact that air pollution has been cut by 70 percent over the past four decades, while the economy has tripled in size. Indeed, this pattern is nothing new—as science and technology advance, pollution thresholds are ratcheted down, political outcry ensues, and eventually states stomach the blow and are able to reach, or near, compliance.

“So, while the standards may be new, the arguments are largely the same. This begs the question—are there circumstances that make this debate different today?”

Certainly, these proposed standards come on the heels of President Obama’s climate talks with China, whereby the United States agreed to cutback on greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below the 2005 levels by 2025. In exchange, China expressed an intent to peak CO2 emissions by around 2030, as well as an intent to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030

The outcome of these negotiations has potential to hang a lot in the balance. That is, if China adheres to their, albeit loose, commitments, then the argument put forth by proponents of stricter emissions standards—that United States policy could serve as a model for other countries—could actually get some teeth. Conversely, the common argument by naysayers of such regulations—that stricter standards will push U.S. jobs abroad—would lose some of its might. So while the debate surrounding the new ozone standards might look like one we have seen before, perhaps the discussion, as it relates to policy beyond our national borders, will carry the day.

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