Feds set to impose major ozone rule

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The Obama administration is poised this week to issue a final rule on ozone levels that business groups contend would be the single most expensive regulation ever imposed by the U.S. government.

The air pollution rule, due by Thursday, will touch off another flurry of legal battles and congressional tussling over the president’s environmental agenda, with business groups and Republicans opposed to the rule looking to block it.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to tighten its standard for surface-level ozone from 75 parts per billion to between 65 and 70 parts per billion. Green groups and health organizations say a tighter standard will help the environment and improve public health, but they too feel they could be left disappointed in the long-awaited rule.

Industry groups mounted a massive blitz against a draft version of the rule, warning that large sections of the country would fall out of compliance with the standards
and that it would be expensive to bring many locales into compliance.

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), which is leading the charge against the rule, commissioned a study earlier this year showing compliance costs topping $1.1 trillion, though environmental groups dismiss those numbers. The manufacturers have taken to calling the rule the most expensive regulation in history, a talking point picked up by Republicans.

Greg Bertelsen, NAM’s director of energy and regulatory policy, said his group was one of dozens to talk with the White House over the last few weeks about the rule. He said NAM still hopes the Obama administration will consider not tightening the standard, though he acknowledged the general assumption is that the EPA will make it more stringent.

“Even at a 70 parts per billion standard, this will be an extremely challenging rule for manufacturers,” he said.

Bertelsen stopped short of saying his group would sue over the standard until he sees it. But he predicted a rule as wide-ranging as the ozone standard will kick off a round of lawsuits from those tasked with implementing it. Other EPA regulations, such as new water rules and power plant standards, have led to scores of lawsuits and threatened court challenges.

Industry lawsuits might put green groups into the position of defending the EPA while also suing for a stronger standard.

On Monday, a coalition of groups warned that the EPA should institute the strictest rule it can and said they might sue the agency if it doesn’t.

“The last time [the EPA issued an ozone rule], we did intervene to defend the standard, not because we thought it was strong enough but because the science was so strong that it needed to be even more protective than what the Bush administration had done,” David Baron, a managing attorney at Earthjustice, said.

“It’s not unusual for us to do that, where we’re both suing to make the standards stronger and intervening to help deflect industry attempts to make it even weaker.”   

Lawmakers are likely to assail the rule as well. As they’ve done for other Obama-era EPA regulations, members have proposed bills to preempt the rule. House lawmakers tried to effectively block it via an appropriations bill this summer.

During a hearing on Tuesday, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James InhofeJames InhofeSenate Republicans push for Flint aid bill Menendez rails against Puerto Rico bill for 4 hours on floor EPA proposes climate rule incentives despite court hold MORE (R-Okla.) accused the EPA of colluding with climate “extremists” on the rule.

“The EPA is essentially cutting corners in a shameless attempt to promote President Obama’s environmental legacy,” Inhofe, a frequent critic of President Obama’s climate policies, said. 

But Democrats have fiercely defended the ozone rule’s projected environmental and health benefits.

“If you cling to the dirty old energies of the past, you’re doomed in this world, because the people are not going to support dirty energy when they see what it’s doing to the planet,” Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerDems leery of Planned Parenthood cuts spark Senate scuffle Calif. Dem missed votes, sit-in on trip to Spain Hispanic Caucus PAC looks to flex its muscles in 2016 MORE (D-Calif.) said.

John Walke, director of the National Resources Defense Council’s Climate and Clean Air Program, said green groups would look to defend any new rule from legislative attacks, as well as legal ones.

“You would see uniform opposition to that recklessness from the same groups who are criticizing EPA for not protecting Americans with a standard that goes far enough,” he said.