EPA Got It Wrong, Obama Got It Right on Ozone Limits: View

President Barack Obama is being hammered by environmentalists for deciding not to tighten regulations on ground-level ozone, as the Environmental Protection Agency recommended.

We think he made the right move. Changing the rules now -- two years ahead of their scheduled reconsideration -- would have hurt both businesses and consumers at a vulnerable time.

The EPA’s plan stood on shaky scientific ground as well. The agency should prepare a sounder recommendation before the standard must be revisited in 2013.

The federal government places limits on ground-level ozone, a component of smog, because high levels can irritate people’s respiratory systems. Man-made ozone (some of it comes from plants) forms when cars, industrial plants and other polluters emit volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight.

Ozone can cause breathing difficulties in people with respiratory diseases and reduced lung capacity in people engaged in strenuous activity. The effects, however, are generally temporary, tending to subside when the person goes indoors.

In 2008, EPA scientists recommended lowering the ozone limit in the earth-hugging troposphere from the Clinton-era standard of 84 parts of ozone per billion parts of air to 65 or 70 parts per billion. Under the Bush administration, however, the agency settled for 75 ppb.

Early Review

There is no requirement to review the rule until 2013, but with a greener president in the White House, the EPA moved to update it this year. The agency proposed setting the threshold at 60 to 70 ppb, to be achieved by 2020. (Each state would need to offer a compliance plan or risk having one imposed by the federal government or losing highway funds.)

In making this proposal, the EPA assessed the value of the 60 ppb limit to public health at $30 billion to $87 billion in 2020 -- in part because the agency contends it would prevent 4,000 to 12,000 premature deaths in that year. But these estimates are misleading because they include the benefits of reducing exposure to fine particles, which the EPA can and does limit through a separate regulation.

Moreover, it’s impossible to know for sure whether ozone causes death. The EPA cites a review by the National Research Council that said ozone exposure is “likely” to “contribute” to premature death. But the review of studies doesn’t establish causality with certainty. Rather, it leans on human tests showing ill effects from exposure to ozone at doses much higher than current standards allow and on observational studies that attempt to draw a correlation between ozone levels and health data.

Many such studies show a positive association between elevated ozone levels and ill health, yet quite a few show no association or an inverse one. In its report, the National Research Council stresses the uncertainty of its finding and urges the EPA to conduct further work before drawing conclusions from it.

High Price Tag

It would arguably make sense to play it super-safe with ozone and lower the standard anyway, if the cost was moderate. But the EPA has estimated the price tag to meet the 60 ppb standard could rise to $90 billion in 2020. And that figure is probably conservative. As Bloomberg Government analysts concluded in February, the EPA optimistically assumes that 80 percent of required emission reductions would come from cheap, yet-to-be-invented technology. Bloomberg Government found a $1 trillion-per-year estimate by the industry trade group Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI to be more realistic, if somewhat overstated.

As President Obama noted in rejecting the EPA’s plan, with the economy threatening to slip into another recession, this is not a good moment to saddle U.S. businesses and consumers with additional ozone compliance costs.

Actually, such a moment may never come, if you consider the part of the ozone story the EPA’s calculations left out. Tropospheric ozone isn’t all bad; like ozone high in the stratosphere, it blocks ultraviolent radiation from the sun. According to several studies, reducing ground-level ozone would increase the incidence of cataracts and skin cancer, which certainly can cause death.

Might that offset the respiratory health benefits of ozone reduction? We won’t know until the EPA factors in both effects. The agency should use the next two years to find the answer.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.