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Second Chance: Will EPA’s New Ozone Standard Follow the Science?

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This week the EPA’s Clean Air Science Advisory Committee (CASAC) meets to discuss the science behind the national air pollution standard for ozone. The independent committee, which is comprised of air pollution and public health experts from a variety of institutions outside of the EPA, meets regularly to discuss the science on air pollution and health and to make recommendations to EPA on its air pollution rules. But this meeting in particular has greater interest from scientists, industry, and the public.

Overall, air quality in the US has improved in recent decades, but ozone pollution continues to be at levels that endanger public health in many places.

Overall, air quality in the US has improved in recent decades, but ozone pollution continues to be at levels that endanger public health in many places.

Why so much attention? Let’s recap the Obama Administration’s history on the ozone standard. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA—every five years—must revisit its standards for ambient air pollutants (i.e. outdoor air pollutants) as part of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). In 2011, the EPA reconsidered the standard for ground-level ozone, a pollutant that forms in the air from emissions of automobiles, industrial sources, and natural emissions. Following CASAC recommendations, the EPA concluded that the ozone standard should be set between 0.60 and 0.70 parts per million (ppm) in order to be protective of public health. This range would tighten the standard from the 2008 standard of 0.75 ppm. CASAC’s recommendation was sent to the White House for approval, but the administration chose not to update the standard despite the scientific evidence. Instead, the administration opted to kick the can down the road and wait until the next cycle of ozone standard review—the one CASAC is currently discussing—to consider whether the standard needs tightening.

The Power of NAAQS: Science

This 2011 political move wouldn’t be as notable if the White House had flexibility in setting the standard, but it doesn’t. Air pollution standards under NAAQS must be based on the science. This is written in the Clean Air Act and was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Whitman v. American Trucking Associations in 2001. In question was whether or not then-EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman could consider implementation costs in setting air pollution standards. The court affirmed that the administrator could not, writing that the Clean Air Act instructs the EPA to set “ambient air quality standards “the attainment and maintenance of which … are requisite to protect the public health.” (If, like me, you think the history of air pollution regulation is interesting, you might like this webinar I did for Engineers for a Sustainable World).

So why did the White House fail to follow the science in 2011? As my colleague Michael wrote then, the administration appeared to be influenced by a few factors. On top of the upcoming 2012 elections, industry was placing pressure on the agency and on the administration for the alleged costs associated with a tighter ozone standard. As we know from visitor logs, industry representatives met with White House staff and with EPA staff to discuss their concerns.

As a secondary pollutant, ozone forms in the atmosphere from emissions from a variety of sources, including automobiles and industrial pollutant sources.  Photo: EPA AirNow

As a secondary pollutant, ozone forms in the atmosphere from emissions from a variety of sources, including automobiles and industrial pollutant sources. Photo: EPA AirNow

A science-based ozone standard in 2015?

But what will happen this time around? Will we see a science-based ozone standard in 2015? CASAC is currently discussing the state of science on ozone and its impacts on public health and welfare. In fact, you can watch it! For the first time, the meeting is being webcast here. They will review the Integrated Science Assessment (ISA), a 1,251-page document produced by EPA scientists that surveys the current scientific literature on ozone (including, I am proud to say, one of my own papers). Next, the committee of independent scientists will consider that science in making a recommendation to EPA for the ambient ozone standard.

Will the EPA and the Administration set a standard that listens to the advice of their scientific experts? For now, we know that the agency—and even their external scientific experts—appear to be getting the same pressure from industry we saw in 2011. Yesterday, 36 industry trade associations wrote a letter to CASAC—not to the EPA Administrator, mind you, but to the independent committee of scientists—pleading with the committee to consider and advise EPA about the “astronomical” costs to industry they claim will result from a tighter ozone standard. There is, of course, a place to discuss the economic impacts of EPA rules, but that place is not within a scientific advisory committee charged with assessing the scientific basis for a rule to protect public health and welfare.

We will be waiting to see if the agency and the administration can set a science-based standard, despite this and other pressure they might receive to do otherwise. In the meantime, let’s talk about the science.

Posted in: Science and Democracy, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , , , , , ,

About the author: Gretchen Goldman is a lead analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. She holds a PhD and MS in environmental engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a BS in atmospheric science from Cornell University. See Gretchen's full bio. Follow her on Twitter at @GretchenTG.

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  • Boris Galvis

    Good job Gretchen. If I recall correctly one of the main discussion topics was the background ozone concentration value, which determines at the end what concentration levels would be attainable.

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/about/staff/staff/gretchen.html Gretchen Goldman

      Thanks, Boris. CASAC was actually talking about background ozone levels just now:

      http://yosemite.epa.gov/sab/sabproduct.nsf/WebAll/Webcast?OpenDocument

      Background levels are definitely a factor to consider, along with a few other topics on the technical side. Definitely lots of areas to continue to research on both the air pollution and health sides.

  • Boris Galvis

    Good job Gretchen. If I recall correctly one of the main discussion topics was the background ozone concentration value, which determines at the end was concentration levels would be attainable.

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