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In Pre-Thanksgiving Surprise, EPA Rolls Out Proposal to Tighten Ozone Standard

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its proposal to tighten the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ozone on Wednesday, raising the ire of industry, regulators and Republicans poised to take control of Congress, for both the tighter standard and the timing of the announcement.

The ozone proposal came one day after the EPA suffered a setback when the U.S. Supreme Court said it would hear an appeal to its Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). Last April, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in favor of MATS, which is aimed at reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants (see Daily GPIMarch 20). The EPA’s crackdown on air pollutants has been a factor in shutting down numerous older coal-fired power plants across the country and derailing plans for new ones.

In the latest action concerning ozone, the EPA in a 626-page report proposed lowering the primary and secondary standards for ozone for power plants and factories from fossil fuel burning from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to a range of 65-70 ppb. Under the federal Clean Air Act, the agency is required to review the standards every five years; it was last set to 75 ppb in 2008.

"Bringing ozone pollution standards in line with the latest science will clean up our air, improve access to crucial air quality information, and protect those most at-risk," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. "It empowers the American people with updated air quality information to protect our loved ones, because whether we work or play outdoors we deserve to know the air we breathe is safe."

According to the EPA, the lower standard will prevent 320,000-960,000 asthma attacks in children, which would reduce by 330,000 to one million the number of missed school days. The agency said the lower standard would also prevent more than 750-4,300 premature deaths; 1,400-4,300 asthma-related emergency room visits; and 65,000-180,000 missed workdays.

The EPA estimated that annual costs for adopting a 70 ppb standard would be $3.9 billion, while a 65 ppb standard would be $15 billion.

"In light of uncertainty surrounding the Supreme Court's decision to review the challenges to EPA's MATS, we would suggest that EPA could continue its historical tendency to finalize rules that are somewhat less strict than those it proposes, potentially pointing to a final standard at the higher end of the 65-70 ppb range," ClearView Energy Partners LLC said in a note to clients on Wednesday.

The Supreme Court elected to review the MATS standard, based on challenges claiming EPA had not considered the costs to utilities of the mandate.

On the ozone proposal, the EPA set a 90-day public comment period on the ozone proposal to begin once it was published in the Federal Register. The agency said it plans to hold three public hearings on the matter in January, with plans to finalize the proposal next year.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, blasted the proposal and the fact that it was rolled out the day before the Thanksgiving holiday.

"Yet again we're seeing the Obama administration release an incredibly expensive regulation on the eve of a major national holiday," Murkowski said. "The administration is clearly hoping to release this at a time when the vast majority of Americans are focused elsewhere, and that alone should tell us something about it."

EPA's proposal "threatens to put large swaths of the country into nonattainment and could be the costliest regulation in U.S. history, which would be devastating to the economy,” Murkowski said.

Frank Macchiarola, executive vice president for America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), said the nation's shale revolution "helped fuel a renaissance in manufacturing" and led to improved air quality. "Today's proposed ozone rule from the EPA threatens this progress. It is a step in the wrong direction and would hinder our ability to experience a sustained economic recovery.”

He added that legislation sponsored by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) "would continue both the environmental and economic progress we have made, and strikes the right balance by allowing communities to catch up with existing strict standards before being subjected to a spate of overly burdensome and costly new mandates."

Jack Gerard, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute (API), voiced similar concern.

"Air quality has improved dramatically over the past decades and will continue to improve as EPA and states implement existing standards, which are the most stringent ever," Gerard said. "Careful review of the science shows that the current standards already protect public health. Tightening these standards could be the most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public, with potentially enormous costs to the economy, jobs, and consumers."

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) also voiced opposition to the EPA's proposal on the grounds that it doesn't think lowering the standard will provide any health benefits.

"As a scientist, I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the EPA has proposed these new, shortsighted regulations," said TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw. "Environmental regulations should be based on good science, common sense and the certainty that they will achieve the stated health benefits. The EPA proposals fail miserably at meeting any of those metrics."

Environmental groups and supporters of the tighter standards also weighed in.

"As we gather with family and friends for the holidays, all Americans can be especially thankful for this important step to reduce smog and secure healthier and longer lives," said Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp. “Smog is a dangerous air pollutant that is linked to asthma attacks and other serious heart and lung diseases. Our nation has the innovation and the determination we need to follow the medical science, and protect our children and communities from dangerous smog pollution."

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called the EPA's proposal "a breath of fresh air."

"These standards will literally save lives and will also help ensure that New York's efforts to combat ozone pollution are not undercut by pollution generated by upwind states," he said.

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