On November 26, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) proposed to revise its primary and secondary ozone standards from the current standard of 75 parts per billion (“ppb”) to between 65 and 70 ppb. EPA also requested public comment on two alternative proposals, to either retain the current 75 ppb standard or to lower the final standard even further, to 60 ppb. EPA issued the standard going into the Thanksgiving holiday in order to comply with a court-imposed deadline to issue the proposal by December 1.
EPA is required to review and revise the standard for ground-level ozone such that the allowed level is “protective of human health with an adequate margin of safety.” (Ground-level ozone is generated when certain precursors—nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds—are emitted by automobiles and other sources, and react in the presence of sunlight to create the highly reactive form of oxygen). For decades, EPA has linked ozone exposure to a host of respiratory and other health concerns, including asthma.
Under current rules, localities that don’t meet the acceptable level are declared nonattainment areas, and the relevant air quality agency (usually states) must then submit plans to EPA on how they will cut pollution. According to a presentation issued by EPA concerning the proposed rule, 358 counties throughout the nation currently do not meet the proposed 70 ppb standard, while 558 counties currently do not meet the proposed 65 ppb standard. By way of example, significant portions of Arizona, Wisconsin, and Illinois, as well as portions of Indiana and Florida, would be designated as not meeting the requirements of the rule.
Costs and Benefits
According to a fact sheet issued with the proposed rule, excluding California, compliance with a 70 ppb standard would cost $3.9 billion annually, beginning in 2025, and would generate public health benefits of between $6.4 to $13 billion annually; compliance with a 65 ppb standard would cost $15 billion and generate public health benefits of $19 to $38 billion annually.
Public health advocates questioned EPA’s decision to not include 60 ppb within the proposed range of the standard on a November 26 conference call, and while EPA did not propose a standard of 60 ppb, industry groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) still have expressed significant concern regarding the proposal. NAM has warned that compliance with the rule will be more expensive than EPA suggests, and that designating significant portions of the country as nonattainment will significantly curtail construction of new industrial sources. Industry representatives have also warned that, in light of efforts taken over the last four decades to meet prior and current ozone standards, the remaining options that can be taken to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds may be limited. One stakeholder noted that the San Joaquin Valley simply cannot meet the current 75 ppb standard, let alone a lower one, and noted that the standard will create additional economic impacts on the area.
Timing for Submission of Comments and Issuance of the Final Rule
Public comments on the proposal will be accepted for 90 days after its publication in the Federal Register. Consistent with the current court order governing issuance of the draft rule, EPA must finalize the standard by Oct. 1, 2015 unless an extension is granted.