EPA set to Impose Strict New Ozone Standard on U.S.

With the nation mired in a prolonged recession, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to tighten standards for ground-level ozone (smog), a move widely expected to impose significant economic burdens on communities struggling to overcome double-digit unemployment.

EPA Jan. 7 proposed setting the “primary,” or public-health, standard for smog between 0.060 parts per million (ppm) and 0.070 ppm measured over eight hours. The agency is also putting forward a “secondary” ozone standard, designed to protect trees and plants.  This secondary standard would be between the range of 7 to 15 parts per million-hours, based on a cumulative, weighted total of daily 12-hour exposure to ozone by plants and crops over a three-month period.  In a statement, the agency says, “Ground-level ozone forms when emissions from industrial facilities, power plants, landfills, and vehicles react with the sun.”  Revealingly, the statement makes no mention of how the natural environment interacts with such emissions to help form ozone.

Depending on the final determination of the standards, EPA estimates, perhaps optimistically, that the new rules will have a price tag of between $19 billion and $90 billion in the years to come.  Coal-fired power plants, for example, will be forced to install scrubbers to reduce emissions, and those costs will be passed on to consumers.

Even more important is the impact the proposed new standards will have on certain jurisdictions throughout the country.  As reported in Greenwire (Jan. 8, 2010), “at least 515 U.S. counties contain smog levels that exceed the highest level proposed, and as many as 650 now have levels above the lowest limit.  These estimates are based on EPA data from 2006 to 2008.”  Greenwire further reports that the areas most heavily affected by the new standards include large swaths of California and Arizona, much of the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest.  Many of those areas, encompassing 322 counties, already violate the smog standard (0.075 ppm) set by the Bush administration in 2008

A constant complaint uttered by local officials and businesses leaders over the years is that, just as they are on the verge of complying with EPA’s latest standard, the agency tightens the screws again, forcing them to scramble to meet the new standard.

Houston, Texas provides a case in point.  Vehicle emissions there have fallen in recent years because of  technological improvements and cleaner fuels, despite the growing number of cars, reports the Wall Street Journal (Jan. 20, 2010). “Harris County, where Houston is located,” the WSJ points out, “had 3.1 million cars last year compared with 2.9 million in 2005.”  Even with more vehicles producing lower emissions, Houston runs the risk of being out of compliance for smog indefinitely.

EPA’s latest action on smog could be undermined by another regulatory move the agency is expected to make later this year.  Within the next few months, EPA is expected to bow to the wishes of ethanol producers, and approve the boosting of the ethanol blended with gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent.  The fuel, known as E15, is currently undergoing testing by the Energy Department.  If those tests prove successful, EPA is expected to approve the use of E15 in vehicles manufactured in 2001 or later by mid-year.

By giving a green light to E15, EPA would be throwing a lifebelt to the heavily subsidized ethanol industry, which is suffering from overproduction, relatively affordable gasoline prices, and lingering consumer distrust of the low-energy fuel.  Indeed, E85 is bitterly opposed by automakers, equipment manufacturers, petroleum refiners and blenders, and even some environmental groups.  Automakers are particularly concerned that increased use of alcohol-based ethanol in fuel will corrode engines, even in newer vehicles.

Underneath the hood, higher ethanol content leads to slower-burning fuel which overheats the pistons in the engine.  Hotter engine cycles can result in piston rings becoming stuck, which can shorten the life of the engine and cause pollution, including emissions that help form smog.

Unable to pressure Congress to pass costly cap-and-trade legislation to curb manmade greenhouse gases, the Obama administration is now directing EPA to impose new regulations on ground-level ozone.  Meanwhile, EPA’s coddling of ethanol threatens to raise levels of the very pollutant it claims it wants to reduce.

Welcome to Washington. 

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.