If the EPA proceeds with its proposed tightening of the federal ozone standard, some parts of the country won’t be able to meet the new limit because they have high levels of “background” ozone created by wildfires and naturally occurring intrusions of ozone from the stratosphere.
That point was made repeatedly by environmental science experts who testified yesterday at a House Environment Subcommittee hearing on the achievability of the EPA’s proposed new standard.
The EPA last lowered the federal ozone standard in 2008, from 84 to 75 parts per billion, and the agency is now proposing a further reduction to 60 parts per billion.
“At a standard less than 70 parts per billion, achieving that standard over a broad portion of the western U.S. with current background ozone levels would be very difficult,” said Sam Oltmans, a senior research associate at the University of Colorado.
Furthermore, Oltmans said, “Conditions exist in other parts of the country during some times of the year when background [ozone] contributes significantly under exceedance or near-exceedance conditions.”
Coming to a Head
Jeff Holmstead, an environmental lawyer with Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, said this issue is coming to a head because in the four decades since the enactment of the Clean Air Act, levels of naturally occurring background ozone have continually risen while, at the same time, the EPA has “regulated ozone to lower and lower levels.”
Holmstead said the EPA considers background ozone “not relevant” to the level at which the overall federal ozone limit should be set. He cited a 2001 Supreme Court decision that he said essentially directed the EPA to set the ozone standard “based purely on an assessment of health effects and without considering the cost of meeting any particular standard.” He further noted the high court “suggested that EPA must set air quality standards without even considering whether they are achievable.”
Amanda Smith, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said funding is needed to better understand and measure background ozone, especially in western and mountain states.
“The key point is that mechanisms to account for background ozone that can’t be controlled must be in place—including technical and regulatory tools—before a more stringent ozone standard is finalized,” she said.
A Differing View
Russell Dickerson, an atmospheric science professor at the University of Maryland, disagreed, saying “the state of the science” is sufficient for the EPA to take action now.
“The evidence is compelling,” Dickerson said. “A multitude of measurements confirm the fundamental theory of ozone production from pollution. To protect the natural environment and human health, an ozone standard of no more than 60 to 70 parts per billion is urgently needed.”
Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said the effects of the EPA’s proposed ozone limit reduction “could be devastating.”
“If EPA lowers the ozone standard to 60 parts per billion, over 90% of the U.S. population could live or work in a nonattainment area,” he said. “Many communities still struggle to meet the standards that were set in 2008.”
House Environment Subcommittee Chairman Chris Stewart, R-Utah, noted that the EPA has estimated the new standard would cost businesses $90 billion annually.
“The consequences include draconian reduction requirements, severe economic sanctions, threats to highway funding, and construction bans,” Stewart said.
In a statement released by the American Chemistry Council, ACC President Cal Dooley urged the Obama administration to simply move forward with the 75 parts per billion standard established in 2008—which, he noted, has not been implemented yet.
“With ozone concentrations falling, a lower standard is unnecessary and would jeopardize significant new manufacturing investment in many areas of the country,” Dooley said. “Chemistry companies have announced plans for more than 110 projects representing $77 billion in capital spending, and other industries stand to benefit as the downstream effects of abundant affordable shale gas supplies are felt. A reduction in EPA’s ozone standard would erode the business confidence that underlies these major U.S. investments.”