Republicans on Wednesday warned new standards for smog emissions being pushed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would be the most expensive regulations in history.
The Republicans said the standards would be impossible for some states to achieve and could result in up to $1 trillion in new costs for businesses.
The EPA is scheduled to propose new ozone standards within the next year and is considering toughening the limit to 60 particles for every billion in the atmosphere, or parts per billion, down from the current standard of 75 set in 2008.
The EPA regularly reviews air standards every five years, and proponents of new regulations argue that its efforts to cut back on smog have led to progressively cleaner air.
In 2010, the EPA proposed to cut ahead of that timetable and issue new standards that would have reduced the ozone limit to 70 parts per billion, but the White House killed that plan the following year.
In a statement at the time, President Obama said that the proposal was pulled out of concern that regulatory burdens could threaten the economic recovery, as well as recognition that the air quality regulations would be reevaluated in 2013.
The EPA has estimated that reducing the standard to 60 parts per billion would cost the economy $90 billion annually as manufacturers and refiners improve their systems — and cut jobs. But the EPA has also estimated the new standard could add $100 billion annually to the economy through fewer deaths, trips to the Emergency Room, respiratory ailments and less loss of productivity.
Aside from the potential new standard's price tag, Stewart and other Republicans on the subcommittee worried that new standards would disproportionately affect Western states.
Ozone is produced by automobiles, power plants and other sources, though it also occurs naturally. Natural levels vary, though, and can be affected by forest fires and other events.
Levels of natural ozone as well as ozone that drifts in from other countries are known as “background” ozone are higher in states in the Mountain West, like Utah, than in the East.
Some worry that those naturally higher levels would make it impossible for the states to comply with lower standards.
“Failure to acknowledge these uncontrollable concentrations could lead to EPA setting a new ozone standard next year that is at or near the background levels, with catastrophic economic impacts for large swaths of the country,” Stewart said.
Amanda Smith, executive director of Utah's Department of Environmental Quality, told lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday that stricter standards that do not take background ozone into account “will guarantee failure for Utah” and, by hurting the economy, ultimately harm public health.
Testifying at the same hearing, scientists from the EPA and the University of Maryland admitted that background ozone levels may pose a problem for some states to comply with the standards, though they could not be certain.
Democrats on the panel noted the scientists' hesitancy and hammered on the safety and health benefits of a new standard.
“It has always seemed simple to me that protecting the health of our citizens ensures a stronger and more vibrant economy," said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the top Democrat on the full committee.