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Here come the new ozone standards

I have three things to say about this.

Over the objections of Texas officials, the Obama administration on Wednesday proposed a long-delayed rule to slash levels of ozone – a smog-forming pollutant known to worsen asthma, lung disease and heart conditions.

The regulation is the latest example of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s use of the Clean Air Act to crack down on the pollution wafting from factories, power plants and tailpipes.

“Bringing ozone pollution standards in line with the latest science will clean up our air, improve access to crucial air quality information and protect those most at risk,” Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator, said in a statement. “Fulfilling the promise of the Clean Air Act has always been EPA’s responsibility.”

The agency plans to hold three public meetings and open up a 90-day commenting period before finalizing the rule by Oct. 1, 2015.

Bucking the scientific community’s consensus, Texas environmental regulators have suggested that the proposed limits on ozone — which forms when emissions from cars and coal plants mix with other airborne compounds in sunlight — may not improve public health. They have pushed back against any efforts to lower the standard, suggesting such a move would cost too much.

“I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the EPA has proposed these new, short-sighted regulations,” Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said in a statement. “Environmental regulations should be based on good science, common sense and the certainty that they will achieve the stated health benefits. The EPA proposals fail miserably at meeting any of those metrics.”

[…]

Depending on the severity of their ozone problems, regions would have to meet the lower standards by anywhere from 2020 to 2037.

But scrubbing more ozone from the air — through extra pollution controls, air monitors and retrofitted industrial plants — could cost trillions nationwide, industry-funded studies have estimated.

“This new ozone regulation threatens to be the most expensive ever imposed on industry in America, and could jeopardize recent progress in manufacturing,” Jay Timmons, CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, said in a statement.

Michael Honeycutt, the TCEQ’s chief toxicologist, is among those who question whether lowering ozone levels would improve public health.

“After an in-depth review of the EPA’s analysis, as well as a thorough study of the relevant scientific literature, the TCEQ has concluded that there will be little to no public health benefit from lowering the current [ozone] standard,” Honeycutt wrote in an article for the TCEQ’s October newsletter. “Why regulate something that is not really going to have a benefit?”

For instance, Honeycutt argues that ozone levels have gone down dramatically in the past two decades, but asthma diagnoses have gone up. In Texas hospitals, Honeycutt said, asthma diagnoses actually increase in the winter when ozone levels are relatively low.

Several other scientists who reviewed his article have called it a misleading effort to equate correlation and causation.

1. I’m sorry, but the TCEQ and the industries that it coddles have no credibility on this. Neither the public interest nor objective fact are the TCEQ’s concern. It may be that the EPA is being too aggressive in combating ozone, and it may be that the likely benefit of doing so is not worth what the cost will be. I’m not qualified to evaluate that. What I do know is that no one should take the TCEQ’s word for it.

2. Whichever standard is adopted – the more-lenient 65 to 70 parts per billion standard, or the stricter 60 parts per billion standard – achieving it is not going to be easy.

For Houston, once the nation’s smog capital, the announcement heralded a harsh reality: even after decades of efforts to scrub the lung-damaging pollutant from the sky, the city’s air is not clean enough to breathe safely and might never be.

“All the easy cuts have been made, and there are very few places we can go to make meaningful cuts,” said Taylor Landin, vice president of public policy for the Greater Houston Partnership, a business association. “From our perspective, it’s only fair that they would consider cost.”

[…]

For Houston to reach the proposed mark, air-quality experts said the state might need to impose tougher emissions limits for industrial permits and do more to replace older and dirtier diesel engines for trucks and cranes at the Port of Houston.

The proposed limit poses a daunting challenge for Houston, which is violating the current standard even as its best year for air quality draws to a close. The region is on track to finish 2014 at 80 parts per billion.

“To be effective, and meet this new standard, it will take great cost and effort to reduce emissions from every individual and business in the region,” said Craig Beskid, executive director of the East Harris County Manufacturers Association.

Even environmentalists questioned whether Houston can hit the proposed target. But they said the tougher rule is worthwhile because it would reduce ozone-forming pollution blowing into the region. The EPA estimates that on the region’s smoggiest days, 40 percent of its ozone forms naturally or blows in from faraway sources.

“Would it be possible for Houston in a vacuum? I’m not sure,” said Adrian Shelley, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, an advocacy group. “But it could be possible if the issue is tackled at a larger level.”

I’ve made this point before, but it’s worth repeating that there’s already a cost for the level of pollution that we have now. It’s just that the polluters themselves don’t bear the brunt of that cost – it gets passed on to the public, in a very uneven and unequal fashion. If the EPA’s regulations force the pollution producers to bear those costs, whether they pass them along or not that will be a more equitable situation. And it should be noted that in this case, the polluters includes everyone who drives. We are highly unlikely to meet any new standard without addressing vehicular emissions. That’s going to require some significant changes, and I don’t think we’re ready for that. Ready or not, it’s coming.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, the incoming Texas governor, has sued the EPA at least 19 times. His office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

3. Alas for Greg Abbott, these changes will not be implemented in time for him to be anything more than a cheerleader for another lawsuit. That will fall to Ken Paxton, assuming he hasn’t resigned in disgrace by the time a suit is ready to go. Not mentioned in that statistic above is Abbott’s won-lost record versus the EPA. I don’t have an exact figure, but I’m pretty sure he lost more than he won. I’d expect Paxton or whoever gets appointed to replace him to continue that tradition. The EDF has more.

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