More leeway for ozone regulations needed

By J. Winston Porter

There is simply no credible way to address the lingering smog problem without fixing the Clean Air Act.

That is why it is encouraging to see proposed legislation moving through Congress that would give state and local governments more leeway to comply with EPA ambient air-quality standards for ground-level ozone, which is the source of the problem.

If not for the rigorous pollution-control regulations of the Clean Air Act, many more people with asthma and other lung ailments would be dying prematurely from high ozone levels. According to EPA, there has been a 30-percent reduction in ozone levels since 1980 and further reductions are expected.

But states and counties say the cost of complying with ozone rules is escalating out of control, causing undue damage to the economy and to jobs creation in Colorado and elsewhere.

There is a serious defect in the regulatory process. In 2008, EPA issued the current standard for ozone — 75 parts per billion. After it became obvious that as many as 217 counties across the country couldn’t meet the standard, EPA granted the states more time. In 2015, the agency provided the necessary regulations for implementing the standard.

Nevertheless, instead of working with the states to implement the standard, EPA tightened it to 70 parts per billion — and actually considered lowering it to 60 parts per billion. Consequently, state and local governments must comply with two overlapping standards.

Even EPA acknowledges that the new standard would not significantly contribute to ozone reductions that are already possible. The problem is that counties designated as being in violation face serious limits on new economic activity. Industries and businesses are less likely to locate a new facility or expand an existing one in any area that’s in noncompliance.

Ozone standards that are unnecessarily costly and restrictive, and that result in overlapping requirements and deadlines, work against the health and benefits of the public. There’s a better way to implement EPA’s ozone program, one that uses some commonsense.

A House-passed bill extends the implementation schedule of the new ozone standard to allow the 2008 standard to be implemented first. It also recognizes that ozone levels are being reduced by other existing air-quality regulations. And it provides state and local governments with a path forward for implementing the new ozone standards in a way that will be affordable in the years ahead.

The measure puts EPA’s program back on track toward achieving cost effective reductions for ground-level ozone. A similar bill is awaiting action in the Senate. It would also control pollution and protect public health, but on a more practical timetable. EPA has determined that the vast majority of counties would be able to meet the tougher standard by 2025 with the rules now in place or soon to be implemented.

What’s important to recognize is that the economy has more than tripled in the last four decades while air quality has improved by 70 percent. In other words, environmental progress and economic growth are not mutually exclusive. And that’s a good thing.

Dr. J. Winston Porter is a national energy and environmental consultant, based in Savannah, Georgia.   Earlier, he was an assistant administrator of the U.S. EPA.


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