EPA Remains the “Anti-Environmental Protection Agency”; Wheeler Refuses to Tighten the PM 2.5 NAAQS

Posted on April 16, 2020 by Seth Jaffe

After more than three years of ignoring science whenever it does not support this Administration’s preferred outcomes, the issue of the future of science in environmental regulation has now been well and truly joined.  Yesterday, Administrator Wheeler, disagreeing with the recommendation of EPA’s own staff, announced that EPA is proposing to retain the current National Ambient Air Quality Standard for PM2.5 of 12 ug/m3, notwithstanding substantial evidence that PM2.5 poses significant risks even below 10 ug/m3

In the long-gone days prior to January 2017, this would be short and easy.  The Clean Air Science Advisory Committee would have said that the current standard is not protective.  NGOs and states would have sued, the D.C. Circuit would have vacated EPA’s decision, and even a right-leaning Supreme Court probably would not have thought it necessary to hear a further appeal.

Now, however, the Chair of CASAC doesn’t believe that epidemiology provides a basis for setting NAAQS and CASAC recommended keeping the current standard.  What happens when EPA’s owns science advisors don’t believe in science?  And what happens when the most outcome-based Supreme Court in living memory lies in wait?

I truly don’t know.  I suspect that the D.C. Circuit, depending upon the panel, might still find a decision to keep the current standard to be arbitrary and capricious, but I would not count on the Supreme Court affirming that decision.

In the meantime, I am curious about Administrator Wheeler.  Does he really believe what he is saying or does he just not care that this decision will fairly directly lead to thousands of additional deaths?  As EPA’s proposed rule acknowledges, NAAQS are standards,

"the attainment and maintenance of which in the judgment of the Administrator, based on such criteria and allowing an adequate margin of safety, are requisite to protect the public health."

Greenwire reports that Administrator Wheeler told reporters that “there’s still a lot of uncertainty” surrounding the research supporting the lower PM2.5 NAAQS.  Of course, since the statutory standard requires “an adequate margin of safety,” one would have thought that the uncertainty supports more stringent standards, rather than less stringent ones. Indeed, ever since Ethyl Corp. v. EPA, courts have been clear that EPA must be prepared to regulate even in the face of uncertainty if it is to fulfill its mission to protect the public.

I may not be able to predict what the courts will do, but I’m confident that history will not treat this Administration kindly.  Over time, there is little doubt that the evidence against PM2.5 is only going to grow stronger.  However, by the time a future administration acts on that accumulated weight of data, thousands of people will have died needlessly.

Well done, Mr. Wheeler.

EPA Inches Closer to a More Stringent Ozone Standard: When Will It Actually See the Light of Day?

Posted on February 11, 2014 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, EPA released its second external review draft of an updated Policy Assessment on the national ambient air quality standard for ozone. It also released updated draft risk and exposure assessments. To no one’s surprise, the new drafts confirm support for lowering the ozone NAAQS from 75 ppb to a range of 60 ppb to 70 ppb.

Why is this not a surprise?  Because, as I noted some time ago, the prior draft policy assessment also supported a NAAQS in the range of 60 ppb to 70 ppb. Moreover, the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee weighed in on the prior draft, supporting a standard in the 60 ppb to 70 ppb range. In fact, before getting cold feet, CASAC had indicated that the data would support a standard below 60 ppb.

Courts’ deference to CASAC determinations on these issues is pretty well established. It seems clear that EPA has to lower the NAAQS to at most 70 ppb in order to survive judicial review. It’s not even obvious that 70 ppb would stick, though that will be clearer after CASAC has reviewed this most recent draft Policy Assessment.

The other significant question is when EPA will actually issue the new standard. After all, EPA was prepared to issue a new standard in 2011 or early 2012, when the White House put the proverbial kibosh on EPA’s plans. Will EPA somehow manage to delay issuance of the new standard until after the November elections? Now that the Super Bowl is over, I think that the Vegas bookies are putting their money on after.

More on a New Ozone NAAQS: EPA's Clean Air Science Advisory Committee Endorses EPA's Proposed Range

Posted on February 1, 2010 by Seth Jaffe

EPA has proposed lowering the NAAQS to a range of from 0.060 ppm – 0.070 ppm. Earlier this week, EPA’s Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, or CASAC, met and endorsed EPA’s proposed range. Some CASAC members did express concern about EPA’s proposed secondary seasonal standard, intended to protect crops and forests. However, overall, the CASAC seal of approval is pretty much the end of this argument.

It is important to recall how we got here. CASAC already endorsed the 0.060 ppm – 0.070 range several years ago, before EPA’s last ozone standard was issued. It was EPA’s refusal to follow the CASAC recommendations, and instead propose a 0.075 ppm standard, which led to litigation challenging the standard and the current controversy. 

It is difficult to overstate the weight given the CASAC’s views. Indeed, EPA’s fine particulate standard was vacated in significant part because EPA failed to follow CASAC’s recommendations.

Thus, a standard that does not comport with CASAC’s recommendations would likely be rejected by the courts as arbitrary and capricious. However, I suspect that CASAC’s influence also runs the other way. Assuming that EPA does indeed promulgate a revised NAAQS in the 0.060 ppm – 0.070 ppm range, and assuming that industrial interests challenge the new standard, it will be very difficult to establish that the new standard is arbitrary and capricious if it has been endorsed by CASAC. 

As I noted in connection with the fine particulate standard, it’s not obvious to me that this is a good thing. Depending on whose ox is being gored, anyone can get up on a soapbox and say that they want science to be free of politics. However, these are really policy decisions. It’s one thing to acknowledge that these are complicated issues and we thus have to allow Congress to delegate its authority to the EPA administrator. It’s another effectively to delegate the decision further to the CASAC, which is about as obscure an acronym body as we have. Do we really want standards which will result in compliance costs in at least the tens of billions of dollars being made by groups which truly are not accountable in any meaningful way?