Texas Targets EPA Smog Rule in Latest Suit

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

In another lawsuit against the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Texas is taking aim at tightened standards on ground-level ozone — President Obama’s effort to cut down on smog that chokes the nation’s skies. 

An ozone standard finalized in October shrank the previous 75 parts per billion limits on ozone to 70 parts per billion, putting pressure on some regions in Texas that struggled to meet the previous standards. The rules aim to crack down on pollution coming from factories, power plants and vehicle tailpipes.

Ozone forms when emissions from cars and industrial plants mix with other airborne compounds in sunlight, and it can worsen asthma, lung disease and heart conditions.

Though the new regulation is more lenient than what environmentalists called for, Texas leaders quickly joined with industry in blasting the regulation, arguing that it will cost billions of dollars to invest in cleaner technology that will yield fewer health benefits.

 

Now, the state has launched a legal attack— its 23rd lawsuit against the EPA since Obama took office in 2009.

Attorney General Ken Paxton filed the latest challenge, which he announced Monday, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia last week.

“The EPA’s new ozone rule is not supported by scientific data,” Paxton, a Republican, said Monday in a statement. “Areas of the country that fail to comply with these impossible standards will be subject to costly new regulations that will harm our economy and kill jobs.”

A host of other states have filed separate challenges to the ozone rule. Among the states are Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, New Mexico, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Utah and Wisconsin.

Federal regulators and environmental groups say the lower ozone standard will improve public health, cutting down on diseases linked to the pollution and even curbing premature deaths.

“Ozone pollution means it hurts to breathe for those most vulnerable: our kids, our elderly and those suffering from heart and lung ailments,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, said when rolling out the new standard. “Our job is to set science-backed standards that protect the health of the American people."

But Texas continues to challenge the mainstream science behind the new rule, arguing that the tightened standard will have little-to-no affect on public health.

Its battle against new standards has included, as The Texas Tribune has reported, paying a research firm $1.65 million to look for holes in the science behind the standards. The Massachusetts-based firm, called Gradient, typically conducts research funded by industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute. 

 

And U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, has sought to cast doubt on the science behind that rule — and other environmental regulations — by holding hearings in Washington.

Supporters of the rule have called the state’s effort misleading and have compared it to the tobacco industry’s decades-long crusade against science linking its products to lung cancer.

A battle over ozone regulations has raged since the George W. Bush administration set the allowable standard at 75 parts per billion in 2008. It was a hugely controversial step that dismissed a unanimous advisory panel of scientists and doctors who said the standard should have been far lower. 

Under the rules, states must submit plans showing how communities will meet the standards. 

A federal court partially agreed with the scientists in 2013. But by then, it was already time to update the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which limit pollutants such as ozone and must be reviewed every few years.

Millions of people in the U.S. — including those in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio — live in areas that struggle to meet the previous standards. Some communities have seen improvement, but health problems persist. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area alone, more than 1.1 million people struggle with asthma, heart disease and lung disease.

El Paso, Austin and swaths of East Texas that may have immediately struggled to meet a slightly lower threshold, which some EPA watchers expected when the rule was proposed, appear to be spared under the final rule, which applies to three-year averages.

Depending on the severity of their ozone problems, regions would have to meet the lower standards sometime between 2020 and 2037.

Sign Up for The Brief

Our daily news summary