October 03, 2011

Obama Administration Withdraws Proposal to Lower the Ozone NAAQS

Posted on October 3, 2011 by Eva O’Brien

On September 2, 2011, President Obama directed EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson, to withdraw the agency’s proposal to lower the primary National Ambient Air Quality Standard (“NAAQS”) for ozone, a component of smog.  The Administration’s justification for abandoning the proposal to tighten this air standard was the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and uncertainty for business at a time of uncertainty about an unsteady economy.  As a result, the 8-hour ozone NAAQS will remain at the current level of 0.075 parts per million (“ppm”), instead of being reduced to between 0.070 ppm and 0.060 ppm, as EPA had proposed.  Unless pending litigation results in the court speeding up the process, it is not expected that EPA will review this NAAQS final rule again until 2013.

Although the ozone NAAQS is not being reduced, the existing 0.075-ppm standard will result in significant areas of the country being designated nonattainment.  As a result, proposed industrial projects will be required to undergo more rigorous Nonattainment New Source Review permitting, and will need to offset nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compound emissions.  States with nonattainment areas may need to impose new emissions restrictions on existing sources as part of their State Implementation Plans in order to achieve compliance.  These consequences are not without costs.

Nonetheless, the Obama Administration’s action temporarily subdues the significant controversy that the March 2008 proposal and September 2009 revision had generated.  In the Bush-era’s March 2008 proposal, by attempting to establish the primary and secondary ozone NAAQS at 0.075 ppm, the primary standard was higher than the 0.060 to 0.070 ppm range recommended by the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee.  This resulted in allegations from environmental groups that the EPA was ignoring science in favor of business groups, while business and industry generally thought the standard was still too stringent.  Subsequently, EPA’s formal announcement in September 2009 regarding reconsideration of the rule to include lower standards led to heavy criticism that its estimate of cost impacts were too low, that the rule would strongly and negatively impact jobs and the economy, and that the agency was ignoring the science in order to push the philosophical agenda of environmental activist groups.

Perhaps the maxim that a good negotiation ends with no side being completely satisfied is applicable here—the Bush-era standard of 0.075 ppm upsets environmentalists and industry alike.  Unless the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals turns up the timetable, both sides will have to be content (to be upset) until 2013.  In the meantime, perhaps the more interesting aspect of the Administration’s action was the political move that prevents further wrangling by Congressional members—a stream of senators and representatives have been taking jabs at environmental regulatory aims that they argue will harm the economy and job creation.  Throughout the NAAQS revision process, politics have certainly played a role, now to the point that perhaps electoral concerns may be directly influencing EPA’s regulatory agenda.  As other regulatory measures are still in the cross-hairs, including the air toxics standards for industrial boilers (Boiler MACT) and mercury and toxics standards for utilities (Utility MACT), we will undoubtedly continue to see politics play an important role in the implementation of new air standards and regulations.

For further information or questions about this article, please contact the author, Eva Fromm O’Brien. 

Tags: Air


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