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.

EPA Administrator Michael Reagan’s decision means that one of the agency’s most important air quality regulations will not be updated until well after the 2024 presidential election.

“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.”

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

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 put the reliability of the electric grid at risk. “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.”

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