Obama Administration Issues Ozone Cuts in Factory Clampdown

  • EPA’s smog rule carries annual compliance cost of $1.4 billion
  • Industry groups say measure could close businesses, factories

The U.S. government imposed tougher standards on smog-producing ozone in a far-reaching clampdown that will affect everything from factories to power plants, and which industry groups said will cost jobs.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tightened nationwide limits on concentrations of ground-level ozone, the main component of smog, to 70 parts per billion, from 75. The EPA’s standard falls at the weaker end of the range of 65-70 parts per billion that the agency proposed in November.

“Put simply -- 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 in a statement. "Our job is to set science-backed standards that protect the health of the American people."

The regulation represents President Barack Obama’s second attempt to issue a national standard and marks the last major pollution measure to be completed in his administration. Obama backed off a previous EPA plan to cut ozone in 2011 amid pressure from industry groups during the run-up to elections.

The EPA, which was under a court order to issue the final standard, said the rule will reap between $2.9 billion and $5.9 billion in health benefits annually in 2025, outweighing estimated annual compliance costs of $1.4 billion. The limits will prevent 230,000 childhood asthma attacks, and up to 660 premature deaths a year in 2025, according to the agency.

‘Inflict Pain’

Industry groups had pressured the EPA to retain the old limits set in 2008 by the Bush administration. Tightening the standard to 70 parts per billion or lower will leave large parts of the country out of compliance, bringing economic activity in those areas to a halt, while yielding little improvement to public health, opponents of Obama’s plan said.

“After an unprecedented level of outreach by manufacturers and other stakeholders, the worst-case scenario was avoided,” Jay Timmons, president of the Washington-based National Association of Manufacturers, said in a statement. “However, make no mistake: the new ozone standard will inflict pain on companies that build things in America and destroy job opportunities for American workers."

A host of air regulations on automobiles, power plants and factories already on the books will put the majority of the U.S. on a path to meeting the ozone limits by 2025 without additional action, said McCarthy. Average ozone levels have fallen by one-third since 1980, she said.

The Natural Resources Defense Council said the EPA’s failure to impose tighter standards went against the advice of its scientific advisers, which called on the agency to consider strengthening the limits to as low as 60 parts per billion.

‘Harmful Levels’

“The revised standard will provide real health benefits compared to today’s unsafe level of 75 ppb,” John Walke, an attorney with the environmental group, said in a statement. "But by setting a health standard that does not adequately protect Americans against harmful levels of smog pollution, President Obama has missed a major opportunity.”

Ozone acts as a shield against the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, where it occurs naturally. At the ground level, the odorless, colorless gas is formed when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds from cars, power plants, refineries and other sources cook in the sun.

Natural gas producers said the ozone limits risks putting the brakes on the economic growth driven by a surge in production of the power-plant fuel.

“The rule threatens the economic progress our nation is making in the manufacturing sector and will create a regulatory burden that will make compliance in some regions near impossible,” Frank Macchiarola , executive vice president at America’s Natural Gas Alliance, said in a statement.

Counties that fail to meet the air quality standards will have from 2020 to 2037 to meet the rules via plans developed by states. Steps to comply may include the installation of expensive equipment to cut emissions from pollution sources, like smokestack scrubbers.

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