The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced what may be the biggest news for a long time on air pollution: the agency is significantly tightening the rules on smog. The move might prevent thousands of deaths each year, but polluters are already up in arms.
The proposed rule is a reversal of one of the Bush administration's most controversial environmental moves, one that has been on the top of the list of improvements that environmental and public health experts sought from the Obama team.
The new proposed rule would require that smog, also known as ground-level ozone, be limited to at a level between 60 and 70 parts per billion over an eight-hour period. This is a significant update from the Bush administration rules proposed in March 2008 that, against the advice of EPA experts, set the upper limit at 75 parts per billion. Up to 186 million people in the United States are breathing unhealthy levels of smog today because of this weaker standard, said Janice Nolen, director of national policy and advocacy at the American Lung Association.
The ALA, Earth Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, and other environment and public health groups filed suit against the Bush EPA following the announcement of the weaker standards. The Obama EPA agreed to reconsider them in September 2009. In a call with reporters, Nolen praised the new administration's decision to improve the standard. "Evidence shows that someone is already paying the high prices [of weak standards]," said Nolen. "Children, elderly, people with chronic lung disease should not have to bear that burden. The law requires that they be protected."
The EPA has estimated that a limit of 70 parts per billion could prevent up to 3,800 premature deaths each year. According to the EPA, compliance with the new rule will cost polluters between $19 billion and $90 billion a year by 2020, but the benefits to human health will be worth between $13 billion and $100 billion every year. The improved air quality would bring down the number of deaths and hospitalizations due to asthma, bronchitis, and other heart and lung conditions.
Of course, not everyone is happy about the new rules limiting smog pollution, most of which comes from coal-burning power plants, oil refineries, and manufacturers—especially not the polluters responsible for those emissions. The American Petroleum Institute, the trade group for the oil industry, fired off a statement arguing that there was no scientific basis for the new rules. "To do so is an obvious politicization of the air quality standard setting process that could mean unnecessary energy cost increases, job losses and less domestic oil and natural gas development and energy security," said API.
The new rules also set a secondary standard, which would monitor ozone exposure over seasonal periods. This is meant to reduce the impacts of ozone on plants and wildlife. EPA documents revealed Geoge W. Bush directly intervened to prevent the EPA from implementing this secondary standard in 2008. It was an unprecedented move on the part of a president—an extreme act of environmental hostility, even for Bush. The Clean Air Act, which governs smog rules, intended for EPA experts to determine how much pollution Americans should be exposed to, based on science—not crass political calculation.
In reviewing the science and setting a new, tougher standard, the Obama administration returns to sanity on smog, and public health in general. "This may be the most important decision the EPA makes this year," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. "Smog is the nation’s most widespread air pollutant and one of the most dangerous. Smog can make us sick. It can send us to the hospital. It can literally kill."
The rule will be up for public comment for 60 days before the agency determines where to set the final limit.