Air Official from U.S. Northeast Urges Congress To Tackle Ozone Reforms, Joining Industrial and Western States in Push For Regulatory Relief03/24/2017
A top environmental regulator from the U.S. Northeast has joined counterparts from industrial states and the Western U.S. in criticizing the Obama administration’s stringent 2015 National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ozone.
“Unfortunately the reality today has been that EPA has failed to accomplish implementing new standards in a five-year time frame,” Marc Cone, air quality director of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection said today during a March 22 hearing of the Environment Subcommittee of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Currently the system does not work and it is now an excellent time to consider changes,” Cone said. He was joined on the committee by air quality regulators from Kentucky and California, who also expressed serious concerns about the workability of the new ozone standard of 70 parts per billion (ppb).
The hearing and testimony shows Congress has a real appetite for solving the problem presented by the stringent new ozone standard, which the prior Administration ratcheted down from 75 ppb to 70 ppb in October 2015. In setting the new standard, the Obama administration ignored a bipartisan coalition of state and local officials, business groups and labor unions who urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to leave the 75 ppb benchmark in place. Even U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) – with an 89 percent lifetime score on environmental issues from the League of Conservation Voters – expressed serious concerns during the debate over the new standard. The Colorado senator even called it “the perfect example of applying the law and doing it in a way that doesn’t make sense on the ground.”
This week’s hearing was focused on a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), the Clean Air Standards Implementation Act (H.R. 806), which would extend the implementation period for states to October 2025. The goal of the proposed bill is helping states, particularly in the Western U.S., which will struggle to meet the 70 ppb ozone standard. The bill also extends the current National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) review cycle for pollutants from five years to 10 years, forbids any revisions to current air quality standards until the current cycle is complete in 2025, requires administrators to issue implementation guidelines alongside the standard, and considers emissions that originate outside the United States, as well as those that are naturally occurring.
“The strategic approach to modernizing the Clean Air Act is necessary and appropriate,” Sean Alteri, Director of the Air Quality Division at the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection, told the committee. “The amendments establish a more reasonable time interval for area designations and revised NAAQS, and provides EPA and state air pollution control officials with sufficient time to meet its statutory obligations.”
Another major concern raised during the hearing was the fact that some states are punished for air pollution they did not cause. Seyed Sadredin, air pollution control officer in the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, told the hearing 85 percent of the pollution in San Joaquin comes from outside the U.S., and while his district does not produce the emissions, they suffer under the “devastating” federal regulations. The standards are unattainable, he said. “Our concern is not hypothetical or theoretical, but is rooted in our understanding and care for the real life implications of the unfair federal mandates that we are facing,” said Sadredin said.
California’s San Joaquin Valley is far from alone. Across the western U.S., state environmental regulators are worried about the impact of the stringent new ozone standard, which approaches background levels of the air pollutant. Background ozone comes from a range of sources that state officials are powerless to control, including air pollution that travels across the Pacific from Asia, and from natural occurrences such as wildfires.
“Background Ozone in the Western United States is not well understood,” Nancy Vehr, Air Quality Administrator in the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality told the hearing. During her testimony, Vehr argued that background ozone increases in high altitude areasby 70-80 percent. “Background ozone is a reality in the mountain west and likely offsets some of the emission reductions achieved in the West,” she said.
“The Ozone Standards Implementation Act makes practical reforms to the Clean Air Act to streamline implementation of national air quality standards by state and local authorities,” Environment Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus (R-Ill.) told this week’s hearing. “These reforms seek to improve the states’ ability to meet the new ozone and other air-quality standards without undermining efforts to ensure and promote the productive capacity of their citizens.”
It is clear that state officials, especially environmental regulators, across the country are worried the stringent new ozone standard of 70 ppb will be completely unworkable, imposing serious economic costs with little to no environmental benefit. Congress has the opportunity to fix the problem by enacting some commonsense reforms that should attract bipartisan support. The only question is whether political gamesmanship will get in the way.
The Center for Regulatory Solutions is a project of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, a 501c(4) advocacy, research, education and networking organization dedicated to protecting small business and promoting entrepreneurship. For twenty-three years, SBE Council has worked to educate elected officials, policymakers, business leaders and the public about policies that enable business start-up and growth.