EPA sets new ground-level ozone limit at 70 ppb

The US Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will reduce allowable ground-level ozone limits to 70 ppb from the 75 ppb level it set in 2008. Oil and gas industry trade associations and other major business groups immediately said it went too far. Environmental and public health organizations claimed it did not go far enough.

“I realized how serious this decision was,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said during an Oct. 1 teleconference. “I did not look at what other individuals were saying. It was not a popularity contest. I based the number I landed on entirely on science, as the Clean Air Act requires, and did the best job that I could.”

States and cities will have adequate time to comply, she told reporters. “This is likely to be based on 2014, 2015, and 2016 air data,” McCarthy said. “We’ll probably do nonattainment designations in 2017, but we’ll keep working on this. I continue to be amazed at how much we’ve achieved under the 2008 standard as states, counties, and cities implement it, and believe we’ll have no trouble meeting this new standard together.”

Depending on their ozone problem’s severity, areas will have until between 2020 and 2037 to meet the standards, EPA said in its announcement. The new requirements will become effective 60 days after they are published in the Federal Register in another few days.

In its final rule, EPA said that a 70 ppb limit is below the 72 ppb level scientifically shown to decrease lung function and increase respiratory symptoms, and will eliminate, or nearly eliminate, repeated exposure to higher, dangerous ozone concentrations for most people.

“We’re doing what the science says. When you set a level required at a monitor at 70 ppb, it means you have to keep the level below that most of the time,” McCarthy said. “There will be plenty of time for states to work on this issue. But we’ve already done a lot to get at ozone pollution sources like cars and trucks, which means we expect all but 14 counties outside California will meet attainment goals by 2025.”

Other EPA actions

EPA also reduced its Secondary Ozone Standard, which tries to protect trees, plants, and ecosystems to 70 ppb. It also extended the ozone monitoring season for 32 states and the District of Columbia after 2010-13 data showed ozone can be elevated earlier in the spring and last longer in the fall than some states were required to measure. “Recently, in the West, ozone concentrations have been above the level of the standards even during the wintertime,” its final rule said.

Officials from two major oil industry associations immediately criticized EPA’s action. “Our nation’s air is getting cleaner as we implement the existing standards, but the administration ignored science by changing the [limits] before allowing current standards to work,” American Petroleum Institute Pres. Jack N. Gerard said on Oct. 1. “It’s time for Congress to step in and block this unnecessary and costly regulation to protect American consumers.”

“The agency ignored the nation’s steadily decreasing ozone levels and bipartisan pleas from thousands of state and local officials, business groups, and other stakeholders that urged EPA to maintain the existing, stringent standard,” American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers Pres. Chet Thompson separately said. “It is imperative EPA now work with its state partners to finalize an implementation schedule that maximizes state flexibility and minimizes the rule’s negative consequences.”

Other business groups’ officials also expressed dismay. US Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice-Pres. Bruce Josten said tighter ozone rules will present considerable problems for America’s economy, job creation, and construction of critical infrastructure projects. “Ignoring local and state officials’ warnings, the final standard will be extremely difficult for many areas to comply with, some of which have large amounts of naturally-occurring background ozone that is beyond their control,” he warned.

“For months, the Obama administration threatened to impose on manufacturers an even harsher rule, with even more devastating consequences,” National Association of Manufacturers Pres. Jay Timmons said. “After an unprecedented level of outreach by manufacturers and other stakeholders, the worst-case scenario was avoided. But make no mistake: The new ozone standard will inflict pain on companies that build things in America, and destroy job opportunities for American workers.”

The 70 ppb limit puts $10 billion of chemical industry investment at risk, the American Chemistry Council said in an Oct. 1 statement. “We are very concerned that some projects—new facilities, plant expansions, and factory restarts—will remain in limbo until EPA explains how to obtain a permit under the new standards,” it said, adding that the agency finished requirements under the 2008 rules this past March.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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