The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing much tighter federal standards for ground-level ozone. These regulations will punish the West for emissions we did not create, including pollution from China and wildfires from California, while simultaneously driving industries out of America and into countries such as China, which have very few clean air protections. Accordingly, the EPA's ozone plan will actually do more harm than good.
This doesn't make sense, which is why President Barack Obama rejected a similar plan in 2011. I previously served as chair of EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and I applauded the president's common-sense decision four years ago. But now, the White House and new advisers at the EPA are pushing the same idea all over again. A decision is due by Oct. 1.
Environmental groups want the EPA to replace the existing ozone standard of 75 parts per billion — set in 2008 — with a much stricter limit, somewhere between 65 and 70 ppb. Ozone-forming emissions come from many sources, including cars, trucks, factories, farms, power plants, energy production and even vegetation. That means lowering the standard will have impacts all across the nation's economy. It could cost roughly $140 billion annually, according to the National Association of Manufacturers, making it the most expensive federal regulation ever.
Imposing these tremendous costs does not make sense when you consider how far the nation has come on air quality issues. Ozone levels have fallen 33 percent nationally since 1980. The EPA even concedes ozone levels will keep falling based on regulations we already have.
State environmental regulators are deeply worried about what violation, or "nonattainment," of the ozone plan will mean. The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection warns that across much of the West, the EPA's proposed ozone standard is roughly equivalent to background levels, which come from natural sources, wildfires, industrial activity in other states and, increasingly, from industrial activity outside the country.
"Local contributions are so minor that Nevada, like other western states, will be required to implement control measures in rural nonattainment areas that will have no meaningful impact on ozone concentrations," the Nevada DEP said. In New Mexico, where I live, state environmental regulators warn that Western states are getting hit with "transported ozone pollution from Asia." Researchers affiliated with NASA have also confirmed this trend.
Ozone nonattainment penalties put the brakes on local economic growth through tougher permitting procedures and emission-control mandates. Nonattainment is "an economic penalty box that makes it hard to build something new," New Mexico Republican Gov. Susana Martinez said. She calls the EPA's proposed ozone standard "too extreme" and warns "even some of our most pristine areas, such as our national parks, will not be able to satisfy it." Colorado's Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, has expressed similar concerns.
The EPA and the environmental lobby claim a stricter ozone standard is needed to reduce asthma cases. But these claims rely on much higher ozone levels from decades ago. Recent history does not support this claimed connection. In fact, for well over a decade, asthma cases have increased by millions while ozone concentrations have declined.
Nevada Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, writing on behalf of the bipartisan Western Governors Association, has urged the EPA to reconsider this unnecessary action "in light of other, perhaps more dire and immediate problems we face as a society, such as poverty, unemployment and staggering debt." I could not agree more.
Moving the goal posts on ozone will simply send more industrial activity to countries such as China, creating more pollution, not less. When that pollution comes back, carried by prevailing winds, it will drive up background ozone levels in the West and make it practically impossible to ever reach compliance with the EPA's new standard.
The EPA should reaffirm the existing ozone standard — which has not yet been fully implemented — to move the economy forward, create jobs and improve health.
Roger O. McClellan is a past chair of the EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, former chair of the National Research Council's Committee on Toxicology and a member of the National Academy of Medicine.