Over the objections of Texas officials, the Obama administration on Wednesday proposed a long-delayed rule to slash levels of ozone – a smog-forming pollutant known to worsen asthma, lung disease and heart conditions.
The regulation is the latest example of the federal Environmental Protection Agency's use of the Clean Air Act to crack down on the pollution wafting from factories, power plants and tailpipes.
"Bringing ozone pollution standards in line with the latest science will clean up our air, improve access to crucial air quality information and protect those most at risk,” Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator, said in a statement. “Fulfilling the promise of the Clean Air Act has always been EPA’s responsibility.”
The agency plans to hold three public meetings and open up a 90-day commenting period before finalizing the rule by Oct. 1, 2015.
Bucking the scientific community’s consensus, Texas environmental regulators have suggested that the proposed limits on ozone — which forms when emissions from cars and coal plants mix with other airborne compounds in sunlight — may not improve public health. They have pushed back against any efforts to lower the standard, suggesting such a move would cost too much.
"I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the EPA has proposed these new, short-sighted regulations,” Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said in a statement. "Environmental regulations should be based on good science, common sense and the certainty that they will achieve the stated health benefits. The EPA proposals fail miserably at meeting any of those metrics."
The federal rules would shrink the current 75 parts per billion ozone standard – which the EPA's advisers have called far too high – to a range of 65 to 70 parts per billion. That’s more lenient than the 60 parts per billion standard environmental groups called for.
Still, the change would wallop Texas. More than 100 million people in the U.S. – including those in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio – live in areas that don’t meet the current standards.
Whether the effort is worthwhile depends on whom you ask.
“Reducing the ozone standard to this range will help protect millions of Texans,” Neil Carman, clean air program director for the Sierra Club's Texas arm, said in a statement. “Once adopted, cities like Austin, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Beaumont-Port Arthur, Waco, Temple, El Paso and the Tyler-Longview-Marshall area could also see a reduction in harmful pollution.”
Though some Texas cities have struggled to meet the current target, Carmen said, “they have each reached milestones this year.”
In the Dallas-Fort Worth area alone, more than 1.1 million people struggle with asthma, heart disease and lung disease.
Depending on the severity of their ozone problems, regions would have to meet the lower standards by anywhere from 2020 to 2037.
But scrubbing more ozone from the air — through extra pollution controls, air monitors and retrofitted industrial plants — could cost trillions nationwide, industry-funded studies have estimated.
“This new ozone regulation threatens to be the most expensive ever imposed on industry in America, and could jeopardize recent progress in manufacturing,” Jay Timmons, CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, said in a statement.
Michael Honeycutt, the TCEQ’s chief toxicologist, is among those who question whether lowering ozone levels would improve public health.
"After an in-depth review of the EPA’s analysis, as well as a thorough study of the relevant scientific literature, the TCEQ has concluded that there will be little to no public health benefit from lowering the current [ozone] standard," Honeycutt wrote in an article for the TCEQ's October newsletter. "Why regulate something that is not really going to have a benefit?"
For instance, Honeycutt argues that ozone levels have gone down dramatically in the past two decades, but asthma diagnoses have gone up. In Texas hospitals, Honeycutt said, asthma diagnoses actually increase in the winter when ozone levels are relatively low.
Several other scientists who reviewed his article have called it a misleading effort to equate correlation and causation.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, the incoming Texas governor, has sued the EPA at least 19 times. His office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.