The Environmental Protection Agency is headquartered in Washington, D.C.

The Environmental Protection Agency is headquartered in Washington, D.C. Adam Parent/

Upcoming Ozone Rules Don't Have Many Fans

Environmentalists are ready to be disappointed by the EPA’s new standards, but manufacturing groups won’t be happy either.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists have been burned by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion be­fore on smog reg­u­la­tions. Now they’re wor­ried that it’s about to hap­pen again.

The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency is un­der a court or­der to fi­nal­ize a rule tight­en­ing stand­ards for ground-level ozone by Oct. 1. That’s the same air-qual­ity rule that was pulled by the White House in 2011 over eco­nom­ic con­cerns, a move that left the en­vir­on­ment­al com­munity in­censed.

Deep in­to a second term where Pres­id­ent Obama has been ag­gress­ive on en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues, the ozone rule won’t be yanked again. But en­vir­on­ment­al­ists are now gird­ing them­selves for an­oth­er dis­ap­point­ment: that the stand­ard won’t be tight enough.

Sources fa­mil­i­ar with the dis­cus­sions say that the EPA is push­ing to lower the ozone stand­ard of 75 parts per bil­lion to 70 ppb, the high end of the 65-70 ppb range that the agency pro­posed last fall.

The White House could lower the fi­nal stand­ard down to 68 ppb, a seem­ingly minor tweak, but one that could re­quire dra­mat­ic­ally more pol­lu­tion con­trol. With days to go be­fore a de­cision comes out, en­vir­on­ment­al­ists are mak­ing the case that 70 ppb just won’t be enough, even as they pre­pare for it.

A 70 ppb stand­ard “would be a be­tray­al of the Clean Air Act’s prom­ise of healthy air and a be­tray­al of the mil­lions of kids and seni­ors and asth­mat­ics who will not re­ceive the pro­tec­tion that doc­tors say they need by such a stand­ard,” said Dav­id Bar­on, a man­aging at­tor­ney for Earthjustice.

Bar­on said there was a “good like­li­hood” that his group could sue the EPA if such a stand­ard was is­sued.

The ozone stand­ard sets the lim­it for ozone pol­lu­tion, or smog, and re­quires states that vi­ol­ate the level to craft com­pli­ance plans. Ozone has been linked to asthma, res­pir­at­ory dam­age and a host of oth­er health im­pacts.

Busi­ness and in­dustry groups have long op­posed any bid to lower the stand­ard, say­ing that it would plunge too many areas of the coun­try in­to non­at­tain­ment status. Com­ply­ing with the rule would re­quire states to craft plans that cut down on pol­lu­tion from cars and in­dus­tri­al sources, adding up to a rule that op­pon­ents say would be the most ex­pens­ive in his­tory.

Ross Eis­en­berg, vice pres­id­ent of en­ergy at the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Man­u­fac­tur­ers, said that his group had not done an ana­lys­is of what would hap­pen un­der a 70 ppb stand­ard, but that any­thing be­low the cur­rent stand­ard would be a blow to its mem­bers. He did not say wheth­er NAM would con­sider a chal­lenge over a 70 ppb level, but ad­ded, “we’d have to do a lot of work to fig­ure out what this means for our mem­bers and what the costs would be.”

“What I do know is that 68 ppb is markedly worse than 70 [ppb],” Eis­en­berg said. That seem­ingly small dif­fer­ence, he said, would re­quire new tech­no­logy to be ad­ded to man­u­fac­tur­ing sites and that more areas of the coun­try would be out of at­tain­ment.

Op­pon­ents have pushed hard on purple states and mod­er­ate politi­cians in a bid to turn them against the stand­ard.

But pub­lic-health groups say that the coun­try has too long been stuck on a 75 ppb stand­ard that’s in­suf­fi­cient for pub­lic health (it was first set un­der the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, and greens sued be­cause they felt it was not tough enough). The EPA’s sci­entif­ic ad­vis­ory board, which ana­lyzes sci­entif­ic lit­er­at­ure on pol­lu­tion, said last year that 75 ppb was in­suf­fi­cient for pub­lic health, and that vul­ner­able groups such as chil­dren or the eld­erly would see pro­tec­tion only at 60 ppb.

That’s the level where most of the mes­saging and lob­by­ing from the Left has centered, even after the EPA didn’t in­clude it in the pro­posed range that the agency was con­sid­er­ing.

They’re used to dis­ap­point­ment on this. Ahead of the 2012 elec­tions, the White House yanked its last re­view of the ozone stand­ard over con­cerns that it would dam­age the eco­nomy. The move drove a deep wedge between en­vir­on­ment­al­ists and the White House, and has left them frus­trated on ozone.

John Walke, clean air dir­ect­or for the Nat­ur­al Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, said that there’s still hope that, with a few days to go, the White House will lower the pro­pos­al, say­ing it would be “be­wil­der­ing that ad­min­is­tra­tion would set an un­pro­tect­ive level … after hav­ing so many years to get this right.”

“The mes­sage,” he ad­ded, “is that Pres­id­ent Obama should do bet­ter than EPA’s worst.”