WASHINGTON (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency is deferring plans to tighten air quality standards for ground-level ozone — more commonly known as smog — despite a recommendation from a scientific advisory panel to lower air pollution limits to protect public health.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s decision means one of the agency’s most important air quality regulations won’t be updated until well after the 2024 presidential election.
“I have decided that the best way forward is to initiate a new legislative review of the ozone standard and its underlying air quality criteria,” Regan wrote in a letter to the EPA advisory panel last month. The letter cites “several issues” raised by the panel in a recent report that “warrant additional evaluation and review.”
The review, which will take at least two years, will “ensure that air quality standards reflect the latest scientific evidence to best protect people from pollution,” Regan said.
Regan’s decision avoids a potentially contentious election battle with industry groups and Republicans who have complained about what they consider overly intrusive EPA rules on power plants, refineries, cars and other polluters.
The delay is 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 the 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 promote environmental justice. A recent report from the Lung Association shows that minority communities bear a disproportionate burden of ground-level ozone, which is created when air pollution from cars, power plants and other sources mixes with sunlight. The problem is especially 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 years to come” as a result of the delay. An increasing number of asthma attacks, sick days and even premature deaths are likely to occur, he and other public health advocates said.
Raul Garcia, vice president of policy and law for Earthjustice, called the postponement “shameful” and unwarranted. “Science tells us we’re way too late,” Garcia said.
Democratic legislators were also disappointed. “Inactivity threatens public health and puts people with underlying conditions such as asthma or lung disease at increased risk,” said Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He and 51 other Democrats had called for swift action on a new rule.
“Unfortunately, we have seen the process of updating ozone standards repeatedly dragged into political games that risk lives,” the lawmakers said in an Aug. 7 letter to the EPA.
Conor Bernstein, a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, applauded the EPA’s decision “not to proceed with an unnecessary review of ozone standards,” which have not changed since 2015. The current standard was reaffirmed in December 2020 under then-President Donald Trump.
Bernstein, whose members produce coal and other fossil fuels, urged officials to reconsider other regulations he says target coal plants and jeopardize grid reliability. “It is clear — and deeply alarming — that EPA (does not) understand the cumulative impact its rules will have on the nation’s power grid and severely stressed power supply,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute, the main lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, said current ozone limits are among the strictest in the world. “Any tightening of the standard could impact energy costs, jeopardize U.S. energy security, and impact businesses and U.S. consumers,” spokeswoman Andrea Woods said in an email.
The EPA’s decision comes after two advisory panels — the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and the White House’s 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, it is concluded that the level of the current standard does not provide protection with an adequate margin of safety,” the EPA panel said in a June report. A limit of 55 to 60 parts per billion “is more likely to be protective and provides an adequate margin of safety,” the panel said.
Lianne Sheppard, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Washington and chair of the scientific advisory panel, said Regan’s decision was “the only one” he had to make.
“However, I am disappointed given the robust scientific evidence that ozone is harmful to public health and well-being,” she told E&E News last month.
The White House Environmental Justice Council, meanwhile, 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 Shepard said the problem “is compounded by inadequate oversight 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.
Tomas Carbonell, a top official in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said the scientific panel’s report left the EPA with little choice but to launch a comprehensive review, even though all but one panelist supported a stricter ozone standard.
“When we look at our national air quality standards, there’s really no way around that process,” Carbonell said in an interview.
The agency will host workshops next spring to collect information and will release an evaluation plan for action by the end of 2024, he said. A final decision could take years.