Over the past four decades, America has drastically reduced its emissions and dramatically improved its air quality. Since 1980, total emissions of the six principal air pollutants have fallen by more than 60 percent, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Meanwhile, the emissions that contribute to ground-level ozone – the subject of an intensifying political debate in Washington and across the nation – have been cut in half. Under the existing requirements of the Clean Air Act, those ozone-forming emissions are expected to fall by another 36 percent over the next 10 years. 

In fact, we have cleaned up the air so much that today’s ozone levels are no longer linked to asthma rates, historically one of the most important public health indicators for air quality. For more than a decade, as ozone levels continued to fall, asthma cases have steadily climbed. Yet, astonishingly, the Obama administration and its allies in the environmental movement are using the plight of asthma sufferers to tighten the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ozone and tighten the EPA’s grip over state and local economies all over the country. 


Demonstrating real health benefits is critical because today’s ozone standards are already stringent, and the cost of ratcheting them down any further is extremely expensive. The EPA wants to tighten the ozone NAAQS from today’s 75 parts per billion (ppb) into the 65-70 ppb range. According to the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the cost of compliance would be roughly $140 billion a year, “making it the most expensive regulation ever issued by the U.S. government.” Groups aligned with the Obama administration, such as the American Lung Association (ALA) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), are relentlessly campaigning to drive the standard even closer to natural background levels with a standard of 60 ppb – which would cost the U.S. economy $270 billion a year

In their desperation to rationalize this economically destructive policy, the ALA and NRDC are ignoring what the recent data says about asthma and ozone, and claiming huge public health benefits will offset these costs. While campaigning in Colorado, the ALA even played up the asthma angle by falsely claiming that Denver ozone levels have gotten worse since the 1970s. This earned a rebuke from Colorado’s top air quality regulator, who said: “[I]t makes our jobs harder when positive trends are being spun the exact opposite way … There are so many things we have done as a state and as a country when it comes to improving air quality since the 1970s.” 

But the EPA is playing along with the ALA and NRDC. Like these agenda-driven groups, the EPA is shrugging off the real-world data about today’s ozone levels and asthma cases, and justifying the rule with speculative claims of future health benefits. Even worse, the EPA has refused to make public the data used by the agency to support its predictions, prompting cries of “secret science” on Capitol Hill. 

Based on what has been made public, public health officials in one state have slammed EPA’s data sources as “misleading,” “unrealistic,” “critically flawed,” and “implausible.” Michael Honeycutt, Ph.D., of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality further noted: “I don’t think the EPA can really back those claims up with science, if you really look at the data.” He also warned that a new ozone NAAQS of 65 ppb, which EPA is actively considering, would require “dramatic lifestyle changes” from the public to reduce tailpipe emissions from cars, including “no drive days, closing down drive-thru lanes and things like that.” Meanwhile, in Colorado, the state’s top air quality regulator has urged the EPA to acknowledge that “very high background levels” of ozone “make the issue particularly challenging in the West.”

When state-level environmental agencies start speaking publicly about their serious concerns, you know the EPA’s ozone ambitions have gone too far. These regulators are not alone. More than 20 states – with both Republican and Democrat administrations– have urged the EPA to keep the current 75 ppb standard in place. A letter from 11 governors warned “even some of our pristine national parks may not be able to satisfy” the tighter ozone NAAQS, which means almost all the country would be pushed into “nonattainment” with the new federal air quality benchmark. This would impose a “bureaucratic maze” on these areas and put them in “an economic penalty box so severe that needed economic growth is stunted,” the governors warn. All told, they fear 1.4 million jobs each year could be lost under the EPA’s unjustified ozone agenda. 

Until now, the ozone debate has been overshadowed by other environmental controversies and numerous cases of regulatory overreach by the Obama administration. But with a growing number of state leaders speaking out, that is changing. To follow the debate and to get the latest facts, the Center for Regulatory Solutions, a project of the Small Business Entrepreneurship Council, is launching a new webpage dedicated to the Ozone issue, http://centerforregulatorysolutions.org/ozone.  We encourage the public to go there to find the facts, and then demand an honest assessment from the EPA and its allies about the real cost of their political agenda on ozone.

Kerrigan is president and CEO of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.