EPA Won’t Revise Obama-Era Ozone Standards

This aerial photo shows the Standard Oil Refinery in El Segundo, Calif., in May 2017, with Los Angeles International Airport in the background. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Environmental Protection Agency said Monday it will retain ozone standards set in 2015 after a mandatory five-year review, drawing cheers from industry groups and boos from environmentalists who want tougher standards.

The decision to keep in place the limit of 70 parts per billion of ozone was announced in a press conference hosted by EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who said the existing limits, first put in place under President Barack Obama, continue to protect public health and decrease the total amount of the harmful gas across the country.

“From 2017 to 2019 ozone concentrations fell 4% even as the economy grew,” said Wheeler, who stressed the existing limit showed “economic growth and environmental benefits can happen at the same time.”

Ozone is a colorless gas found in Earth’s upper atmosphere as well as near the ground. While ozone is essential to the stratosphere, at ground level it is a pollutant and is harmful to breathe. It can also damage crops, trees and other vegetation.

The EPA is tasked with regulating smog-causing ozone, which most often comes from industrial sources. Under the Clean Air Act, the agency is required to re-examine ground-level ozone limits – using scientific, not economic impact data – every five years, but is not required to change them. When a region of the country exceeds that limit, it must find a way to reduce air pollution levels.

Under the Obama administration, acceptable levels were lowered from 75 to 70 parts per billion. The former president was criticized for the small reduction by both environmental groups and the manufacturing industry, but EPA documents from 2015 said the new limit was enough to protect public health.

Monday’s announcement that the limit would be retained was welcomed by some who once criticized it. Among them was the American Petroleum Institute, a collection of fossil fuel interests, who praised EPA for keeping the existing ozone limit. 

“EPA’s proposal to retain the current primary ozone [National Ambient Air Quality Standards] will help the U.S. continue to reduce emissions, protect public health consistent with the Clean Air Act, and enable economic growth,” API policy expert Frank Macchiarola said in a statement following Wheeler’s announcement. “The decline in U.S. emissions, which has led to the cleanest air in half a century, is due in large measure to cleaner-burning fuels and advanced technologies.”

But environmentalists were less excited about the limit staying the same, as many had argued the 2015 reduction didn’t go far enough.

Among them was Seth Johnson, staff attorney with the Washington-based Earthjustice. His organization was among several who were irked by the Obama administration’s limit and even took the agency to court, saying it failed to meet the standards set by Congress. Industry groups also sought judicial remedy for what they thought was an unfair burden on businesses.

“Polluters would like no standards at all, we would like stricter standards that measure up to the Clean Air Act,” Johnson said in a phone interview ahead of Monday’s announcement. 

But Johnson successfully convinced a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit to reject the claims of industry groups challenging the ozone limit. Last summer, the federal appeals court upheld almost all of the revised standards, with the exception of a secondary limit impacting trees and vegetation, which the judges found needed to be reassessed.  

“EPA hadn’t explained the standard that it came up with,” Johnson said of the secondary limit. “It set the standard as the same for peoples’ health, and EPA has to respond to that and strengthen the standard or explain why not.”

The case was remanded for the EPA to decide how to address the court’s decision in a final rule expected by the end of the year.

Wheeler addressed the D.C. Circuit opinion, as well as another recent decision impacting the limit, during Monday’s press conference.  

He said the EPA had “taken it into consideration and part of the proposal” before noting this specific provision of the Clean Air Act was among its most heavily litigated.

“We are confident that further examination [of the final rule] will withstand legal scrutiny,” he added.

Despite Wheeler acknowledging last year’s ruling, Johnson was hesitant to believe the requirements will be met.  

“Health organizations believe a much stronger standard is warranted,” he said. “EPA departed from those recommendations in the past and we fully expect they will depart from those standards this time too.”

Wheeler said the agency will give the public 45 days to comment on the plan once it is published in the Federal Register.  

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