EPA delays new ozone pollution standards until after the 2024 election

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency is delaying plans to tighten air quality standards for ground-level ozone — better known as smog — despite a recommendation by a science advisory panel that air pollution limits be lowered to protect public health.

“I have decided that the best path forward is to initiate a new statutory review of (normative) ozone and core air quality standards,” Regan wrote in a letter to an EPA advisory committee last month. The letter cites “several issues” raised by the committee in its latest report that “require further assessment and review.”

Regan said the review, which will run for at least two years, “will ensure that air quality standards reflect the latest science in order to better protect people from pollution.”

Regan’s decision avoids a contentious election-year battle with industry groups and Republicans who have complained about what they see as overly intrusive EPA rules on power plants, refineries, automobiles and other polluters.

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The delay marks the second time in 12 years that a Democratic administration has delayed a new ozone standard before an election year. Former President Barack Obama halted plans to tighten ozone standards in 2011, leading to a four-year delay before standards were updated in 2015.

Paul Billings, senior vice president of the American Lung Association, called the EPA’s decision “deeply disappointing” and a missed opportunity to protect public health and advance environmental justice. A recent report from the Lung Association showed that minority communities bear a disproportionate burden of ground-level ozone, which occurs when air pollution from cars, power plants and other sources mixes with sunlight. The problem is particularly acute in urban areas.

Billings called the ozone rule “the public health cornerstone of the Clean Air Act,” adding that “millions of people will be breathing dirty air for many more years” as a result of the delay. An increase in the number of asthma attacks and sick days is more likely, and premature death, he and other public health advocates said.

Raul Garcia, vice president of policy and legislation at Earthjustice, called the delay “shameful” and inexcusable. “Science tells us we’re long overdue,” Garcia said.

Democratic lawmakers were also disappointed. “Inaction threatens public health and puts people with underlying conditions, such as asthma or lung disease, at increased risk,” Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said, as he and 51 other Democrats urged quick action on a new rule. .

“Unfortunately, we have seen the process of updating ozone standards repeatedly get swept up in political games that put lives at risk,” the lawmakers said in an Aug. 7 letter to the EPA.

Conor Bernstein, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, praised the EPA’s decision “not to move forward with an unnecessary revision of the ozone standards,” which have not changed since 2015. The current standard was affirmed in December 2020 under then-President. Donald Trump.

Bernstein, whose members produce coal and other fossil fuels, urged officials to reconsider other regulations that he said target coal-fired power plants and jeopardize the reliability of the electric grid. “It is clear — and deeply troubling — that the EPA (doesn’t) understand the cumulative impact that its rules will have on the nation’s severely strained grid and energy supply,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry’s largest lobbying group, said the current ozone limits are among the most stringent in the world. “Any tightening of the standard could impact energy costs, threaten US energy security and impact American businesses and consumers,” spokeswoman Andrea Woods said in an email.

The EPA’s decision comes after two advisory committees – the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Clean Air and the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council – urged the agency to lower the current ozone standard of 70 parts per billion.

“Based on the scientific evidence currently available, we have concluded that the current standard level is not protective with an adequate margin of safety,” the EPC said in a report issued in June. The panel said the limit of 55 to 60 parts per billion “is likely to be protective and provide an adequate margin of safety.”

Leanne Shepard, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Washington who chairs the scientific advisory committee, said Reagan’s decision was one he and he should have made.

“However, I am disappointed, given the strong scientific evidence that ozone is harmful to public health and well-being,” she told E&E News last month.

Meanwhile, the White House Environmental Justice Council cited the “horrible toll of air pollution” and its disproportionate impact on minority communities. In a letter to the White House, co-chairs Richard Moore and Peggy Shepherd said the problem is “exacerbated by inadequate monitoring and enforcement in many of our communities.”

Moore is co-director of the Los Jardines Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, while Sheppard is co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice in New York City.

Thomas Carbonell, a senior official in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said the science panel’s report left the EPA no choice but to launch a comprehensive review even though all but one of the panel members supported a more stringent ozone standard.

“When we look at our national air quality standards, there is no way to scale back that process,” Carbonell said in an interview.

He added that the agency will hold workshops next spring to gather information and will issue a review plan for the work in late 2024. A final decision could take years.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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