Ozone, the Best Available Science, and a Game of Kick the Can

September 30, 2011
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

Recently, Politico reported (subscription) that White House Office of Management and Budget Director Cass Sunstein had this to say about whether politics trumped science in the president’s failure to set a science-based standard for ground-level ozone pollution:

“There was no questioning of the science,” he said. “On the contrary, there was an emphasis on the fact that the science on which the rule would have been finalized was actually outdated, and EPA is now in the process of updating the science and we want to rely on the best available science.”

A girl plays kick the can

Photo: macattck/Flickr

What the EPA tried to do—and what the White House prevented—was to fix a standard set by the Bush administration that was, in the words of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, “scientifically unjustifiable,” and therefore in violation of the Clean Air Act.

In science, you never arrive at the absolute truth. You just get closer. That’s why the Clean Air Act—like the Endangered Species Act—requires that protections be based on the “best available science.”

The EPA was quite aware that a new scientific assessment has begun—but recognized that this process takes years, and will likely be delayed even further by lawsuits and political wrangling. So as a stopgap measure, to adequately protect the public from ozone pollution while the new assessment process plays out, the EPA attempted to bring the current standard in line with the best available science in the assessment completed under the Bush administration.

It is true that the EPA is currently undertaking a new assessment of the science on ground-level ozone. However, the science supporting a strengthening of the ozone standard has only grown stronger.

As a result, there was no “scientifically justifiable” excuse for the Obama administration to kick the can down the road.

Administrator Jackson has since announced that the EPA will soon give states advice on implementing the flawed Bush administration 2008 ozone standard of 75 parts per billion (ppb). While this is better than the 1997 standard of 84 ppb that is currently in place, it is higher than the 60-70 ppb range that EPA’s staff scientists and independent scientific advisory committee had determined was necessary to adequately protect public health.