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Do EPA Officials Really Care About Western States and Background Ozone?

03/18/2016

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On the same day that lawmakers on Capitol Hill introduced bipartisan legislation to provide state air regulators help with implementation challenges resulting from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new ozone standard, it became clear that EPA officials last month imposed sharp limits on criticism from state air regulators during closed-door discussions on the ozone standard in Phoenix.

At a hearing in Denver yesterday, Colorado air quality regulators declined to comment on the specifics of those discussions, held in Phoenix, Ariz. on Feb. 24. But the opportunity for states to provide their input to the EPA was limited, according to Chris Colclasure, deputy director of air quality at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).

“We presented some slides. We were limited to two slides by EPA,” Colclasure said in response to a question from Matt Dempsey with the Center for Regulatory Solutions (CRS).

Yesterday’s CDPHE hearing was primarily focused on the challenges of meeting the 2008 ozone standard of 75 parts per billion in the Denver metropolitan area. However, the EPA’s decision in October 2015 to impose a strict new standard of 70 ppb looms large over the work of Colorado air quality regulators. “We can’t forget about the 2015 standard,” another CDPHE official said during the hearing.

In Colorado this week, two leading lawmakers – State Sen. Cheri Jahn (D-Wheat Ridge) and State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling) – have called on the EPA to suspend the implementation of the 70 ppb ozone standard. Citing EPA’s own research, Jahn said “the new standard of 70 ppb is practically impossible for Denver to meet, because of background ozone that we can’t control.” Sonnenberg called the new EPA ozone standard “completely unrealistic” and warned it will “penalize our state for background levels of ozone that come from outside Colorado and from natural sources like wildfires.”

The bipartisan call for the EPA to stand down follows major criticism of the agency – and of environmental groups who pushed for an even more draconian standard – from editorial boards across the Western U.S. And an emissions researcher with Denver University warned in a letter to The Denver Post there is no chance the city and surrounding suburbs can comply with the new 70 ppb standard.

The outcry is hardly surprising. Last year, before the EPA took action, Colorado’s top two Democrats – Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet – expressed serious concerns about the impact of a tighter ozone standard, specifically citing the issue of background air pollution. Hickenlooper said he was “very concerned” and Bennet called EPA’s proposal “a perfect example of applying the law but doing it in a way that doesn’t make sense on the ground.”

One day after the EPA’s closed-door discussion in Phoenix, a public workshop was convened on the background ozone issue. But the sanitized version of events presented to the public was still “deeply troubling,” according to a free-market think tank in Denver.

“The EPA admitted Western states are the most problematic for background ozone, and a NOAA scientist said we do not have the ability to measure in real time how much ozone is coming into the Western U.S. from countries like Mexico and China,” Simon Lomax, an associate energy policy analyst with the Independence Institute, said during yesterday’s CDPHE hearing.

“EPA has created such a stringent ozone cap that communities across Colorado and the Western U.S. will be punished for air pollution they didn’t cause,” Lomax said. “Long-term violation of the federal ozone standard triggers the state implementation plan process, which as you know, gives the EPA veto authority over state and local regulations that deal with ozone-forming emissions. We’re talking about cars, trucks, factories, construction projects and even investments in new and upgraded roads.”

It is bad enough the EPA asked state regulators to keep their criticism of the new ozone standard behind closed doors. But the EPA’s two-slide limit on those same state officials is just astounding. And it begs the question: Do EPA officials really care about finding a solution to the background ozone issue in Western states, or are they just pretending?