EPA to tighten federal limits on ozone

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Federal regulators are tightening the standard for surface level ozone pollution, but only on the least restrictive end of the range they’ve long been considering.
 
The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday a new ozone standard of 70 parts per billion, a level tougher than the 75 parts per billion limit currently on the books.
 
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The EPA had been considering implementing a standard between 65 and 70 parts per billion, and its scientific advisory board last year recommended a limit between 60 and 70 parts per billion.
 
 
She defended the 70 parts per billion standard, saying it will “essentially eliminate exposures to the levels that clinical studies clearly show are harmful.”
 
“This strengthened standard will improve public health protection across the country and provide the adequate margin of safety that is required by law and that the science supports,” she told reporters.
 
The new standard, she said, will prevent up to 660 premature deaths every year by 2025. The respiratory health benefits of the new rule will be worth between $2.9 billion and $5.9 billion per year, which she said will outweigh the implementation costs by a factor of four.  
 
The new regulation drew criticism from both industry groups and environmental organizations within minutes of its release.
 
Manufacturers and energy interests have hammered the EPA for proposing to strengthen the standard, saying tough rules on ozone will be expensive to implement and threaten jobs. Industry officials had hoped the Obama administration would choose not to change the standard at all.
 
“After an unprecedented level of outreach by manufacturers and other stakeholders, the worst-case scenario was avoided,” National Association of Manufacturers President Jay Timmons said in a statement.
 
“However, make no mistake: The new ozone standard will inflict pain on companies that build things in America — and destroy job opportunities for American workers. Now it’s time for Congress to step up and take a stand for working families.”
 
White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday dismissed claims that the rules would harm the economy. He cited the EPA's work in reducing air pollution by 70 percent over the last 40 years, at a time when the overall size of the economy has tripled.
 
"I think it certainly calls into question the claims that this kind of rule-making is inconsistent with our economic strategy," he said. "In fact, the president would make a strong argument to you that there is a strong economic incentive for the U.S. and industries in the U.S. to be more focused on renewable and clean energy."
 
McCarthy said that the standards will be achievable, and that outside of California, which has severe smog issues, only 14 counties will be out of attainment by 2025.
 
“Standards and programs in place, or on the way, that significantly cut smog-forming emissions from industrial facilities, cars, trucks, buses, and many other types of equipment and vehicles will help states meet the new standards,” she said. 
 
Environment and health groups have pushed the EPA to go even further than the 70 parts per billion standard, saying a stronger limit would help improve public health.
 
In a statement, Earthjustice said Thursday that the new standard is “far weaker than called for by the nation’s leading medical organizations.”
 
“This action falls far short of what’s needed to protect the 1 in 10 children who live with asthma,” said Lisa Garcia, Earthjustice’s vice president of Healthy Communities.  “The science shows that ozone is dangerous to these kids at the levels allowed by this new standard.”
 
The American Lung Association, which had been pushing the EPA to issue a limit of 60 parts per billion, said the new standard doesn’t go far enough.
 
“The level chosen … simply does not reflect what the science shows is necessary to truly protect public health,” Harold Wimmer, the group’s president, said. 
 
“Protecting the public health is the fundamental requirement of the national standard under the Clean Air Act, and saving lives and protecting health should be the only consideration, based on the law.”
 
But McCarthy defended the rule on Thursday, saying “the best available clinical data” shows that 72 parts per billion is “the lowest ozone exposure that causes adverse health effects in healthy, exercising adults.”
 
“I need to do what’s requisite — not too high and not too low — and it’s very challenging, there’s no bright line,” she said. 
 
“But I used as much thought and reason on how we could actually identify health impacts that we could eliminate and also pay attention to the direction we need to head with our remaining concerns.”
 
The agency last updated its standards for ozone, or smog, in 2008, a move that prompted lawsuits from both industry groups and health organizations. This week, both NAM and supporters of a strong new standard predicted a string of lawsuits against any new standard, but especially one set at 70 parts per billion.
 
Republican lawmakers are also likely to take aim at the new rule.
 
House lawmakers attempted to block the new rule during the appropriations process this year, and members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee grilled an EPA official over the rule this week.
 
Industry groups are already pushing lawmakers to combat the standards. 
 
“Our nation’s air is getting cleaner as we implement the existing standards, but the administration ignored science by changing the standards before allowing current standards to work,” American Petroleum Institute president Jack Gerard said in a statement. 
 
“It’s time for Congress to step in and block this unnecessary and costly regulation to protect American consumers.” 
  
—Sarah Ferris contributed to this report. This story was updated at 3:30 p.m.