EPA extends deadline on ozone regulations, future of Clean Power plan in limbo

by Wesley Brown (wesbrocomm@gmail.com) 188 views 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Wednesday (June 7) continued moving forward on President Donald Trump’s promise to roll back the Obama administration’s “clean air” regulations, this time extending the deadline for states to implement national ozone and smog standards that were handed down more than a year ago.

EPA Director Scott Pruitt said he sent letters to governors in all 50 states to inform them of the Trump administration’s decision to extend the deadline for National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ozone promulgated in October 2015 by an additional year.

“States have made tremendous progress and significant investment cleaning up the air. We will continue to work with states to ensure they are on a path to compliance,” Pruitt said.

The so-called NAAQS standards for ground-level ozone is an outdoor air regulation under the Clean Air Act. Under the Obama administration’s proposal that the former EPA chief says was based on “extensive recent scientific evidence” concerning the harmful effects of ground-level ozone, or smog, the federal agency proposed to set the new standards within a range of 65 to 70 parts per billion (ppb), or possibly as low as 60 ppb.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must review ozone standards every five years by following a set of open, transparent steps and considering the advice of a panel of independent experts. The EPA last updated these standards in 2008, setting them at 75 ppb.

As part of the process to determine what areas of the country are able to meet the current air quality standards, states are submitting their proposals for area designations under the 70 parts per billion (ppb) standard. Areas designated as being in “nonattainment” of the standard face a number of consequences, including increased regulatory burdens, restrictions on infrastructure investment, and increased costs to businesses.

In making the case for the more stringent ozone standards, the Obama administration said the benefits would significantly outweigh the costs. The federal agency estimated that the “large health benefits” to be gained by avoiding asthma attacks, heart attacks, missed school days and premature deaths are valued at $6.4 billion to $13 billion annually in 2025 for a standard of 70 ppb, and $19 billion to $38 billion annually in 2025 for a standard of 65 ppb. Annual costs are estimated at $3.9 billion in 2025 for a standard of 70 ppb, and $15 billion for a standard at 65 ppb.

In addition, the EPA said federal programs to reduce air pollution from fuels, vehicles and engines of all sizes, power plants and other industries shows the vast majority of U.S. counties with monitors would meet the more protective standards by 2025 with the rules now in place or underway. Nationally, from 1980 to 2013, average ozone levels have fallen 33%, the EPA said, adding that it projects this progress will continue.

Following the EPA’s announcement, the Arkansas chapter of the Sierra Club issued the following statement from Director Glen Hooks.

“The Trump administration is, once again, prioritizing polluter profits over public health.  The improved ozone protections were designed to give us cleaner air, fewer asthma attacks, and a healthier America. However, Scott Pruitt has unilaterally decided to ignore federal law and give dirty coal companies yet another year to spew higher levels of pollutants into our environment,” Hooks said.

However, the Trump administration, along with a number of state regulators and industry groups, have criticized the ozone proposal just as burdensome as the EPA’s more famous sister guidelines on carbon emissions, known as the Clean Power Plan.

In February 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of the far-reaching Clean Power Plan and blocked the EPA from implementing rules that would dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions across the U.S. by shutting down most of the nation’s coal-fired power plant fleet. In the Supreme Court ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts issued the stay pending disposition of the Clean Power Plan opponents’ petitions for review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and disposition of the applicants’ petition for a writ of certiorari, which forces the lower court to deliver its record in the case so the higher court may review it.

Following the high court’s decree, Gov. Asa Hutchinson directed Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality Director Becky Keogh and PSC Commissioner Ted Thomas to halt stakeholder meetings on implementation of the state’s Clean Power Plan. Under the earlier proposal, Arkansas would have been required to reduce carbon emissions by 44%, but the final rule change lowers the requirement to 36%.

Then two months, in one of his first major acts as president, President Trump directed Pruitt to immediately “suspend, revise, or rescind four actions related to the Clean Power Plan that would stifle the American energy industry.” The Trump administration, citing pro-coal industry, said the Clean Power Plan could cost industry up to $39 billion a year and increase electricity prices in 41 states by at least 10%. The goal of former President Obama’s precedent-setting rules was to mandate states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by an average of 32% by 2030.

According to EPA rules before the high court intervened, Arkansas regulators had until Sept. 6, 2016, to submit a final implementation plan to comply with former President Obama’s plan. However, that date has come and gone after the full bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard oral arguments in late September. Without backing from the Trump administration, some Supreme court experts say it could take years for the D.C. Circuit Court to unwind the federal lawsuit.

The EPA said Wednesday it is giving states more time to develop air quality plans and is looking at providing greater flexibility to states as they develop their plans. And in the recently-enacted 2017 Omnibus funding bill, an Ozone Cooperative Compliance Task Force is being developed to help states to comply with the ozone standard, EPA officials said.