Foes of stricter ozone standard get ready for EPA decision


By:  Amanda Reilly
Environment & Energy Publishing

Congressional activity on the national ozone standard is heating up as U.S. EPA nears a deadline next week to choose a final new limit.

In the Senate, a bipartisan duo introduced legislation that would allow regulators to delay compliance with a new standard if they enter into agreements with EPA containing "measurable milestones." The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee next week plans to hold a hearing on the Obama administration's air agenda that will spotlight ozone.

In the lower chamber, House Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) yesterday demanded documents from the Obama administration related to review of the standard.

Last November, EPA proposed to tighten the national ambient air quality standard for ozone of 75 parts per billion -- set in 2008 during the George W. Bush administration -- to between 65 and 70 ppb. EPA faces an Oct. 1 court-ordered deadline to finalize a new standard; EPA's final limit is currently under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

EPA says that a new standard would prevent asthma attacks and premature deaths, but industry and business groups have waged an aggressive public relations campaign against a tighter standard because of potential compliance costs.

The bipartisan legislation introduced by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) addresses concerns raised by stakeholders that it would be difficult for local areas to meet EPA's proposed new range.

Under the bill, local areas that can't comply with the tighter standard would avoid penalties associated with noncompliance by entering into "Early Action Compact Plans" with EPA. Those agreements would spell out "measurable milestones" and allow areas to demonstrate that they will achieve the standard no later than 10 years after approval of the plans.

The lawmakers billed the legislation as providing a reasonable compliance option for localities.

"Keeping Missourians healthy by cutting down ozone pollution is a goal all stakeholders can get behind -- and it's a goal we can achieve without inflicting economic damage on communities that are struggling to meet these standards," McCaskill said in a statement. "Our bipartisan bill provides a pragmatic and reasonable path forward to help guard Missourians' health, and Missourians' livelihoods, while not accepting the false choice of jobs or the environment."

Hatch said he was concerned that Western states -- which are affected by ozone coming from overseas and from the upper atmosphere -- would not be able to meet a tighter standard.

"This bipartisan legislation directs the EPA to implement a program that allows local communities to enter into a voluntary cooperative agreement with the EPA to utilize locally crafted solutions to improve air quality so that they can comply with federal standards," he said.

The bipartisan bill comes as the National Association of Manufacturers -- one of the most vocal critics of EPA's proposal -- launched a new television ad highlighting Democratic and Republican opposition to a tighter standard. The ad is scheduled to air in Washington, D.C., through Oct. 1.

"Agreement on anything in Washington is hard to find. But one issue has brought together Democrats and Republicans, labor and business, local officials, and editorial boards across the country," the ad says. "All oppose new costly and onerous ozone regulations."

Public health and environmental groups have said that the concerns about achieving a tighter standard are overblown. Last week, Earthjustice released a report finding fault with widely cited industry cost estimates (Greenwire, Sept. 15).

They've called on EPA to set a new standard no higher than 60 ppb based on studies linking negative health effects with ozone concentrations above that level.

In a pair of letters to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Smith, the House Science chairman, said he was concerned that the Obama administration would choose a more stringent final standard to appease environmental organizations.

"Any new lower ozone standard is unnecessary at this time and could cause devastating harm to the economy," Smith wrote.

Smith has long raised concerns about lowering the ozone standard, and his committee has held several hearings questioning the science behind EPA's proposal.

He asked both McCarthy and McDonough to produce all documents and communications between or among EPA and the White House related to the final ozone standard. Of McDonough, Smith also demanded all communications between the White House and outside groups, specifically naming the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters.

The House Science chairman also requested that the administration make available several individuals, including EPA acting air chief Janet McCabe and Council on Environmental Quality Managing Director Christy Goldfuss, for interviews.