WASHINGTON, May 17, 2016 -Obama administration efforts to limit smog-causing ozone and other air pollutants hit another congressional roadblock Wednesday as the full House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the Republican-backed Ozone Standards Implementation Act in a party-line 30-23 vote. It seems that everyone wants clean air, but also wants to keep driving their own truck.

The legislation (H.R. 4775 in the House and S. 2882 in the Senate), which was approved last week by a House Energy subcommittee in a 15-13 party-line vote, would rewrite the federal Clean Air Act to delay implementation of the EPA’s most recent air quality standards announced in October.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA sets standards for criteria pollutants, including ground-level ozone. EPA established updated ozone standards in 2008, but did not publish implementing regulations for the 2008 standards until March 2015. States are just starting to implement those standards, but in October of 2015, EPA revised these standards, putting states in the position of trying to simultaneously implement two ozone standards.

The new limits would likely lead to further restrictions on fossil fuel use, oil refineries, several types of equipment and business operations. 

Republican supporters of the legislation, which the full House Energy Committee is expected to approve on Wednesday, May 18, insist the measure is carefully designed to preserve economic growth without damaging human health or driving up the number of job-killing “nonattainment” areas – areas considered to have air quality worse than the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

The bill would delay lowering ozone levels from the current 75 parts per billion (ppb) to 70 ppb in the Air Quality Standards. It specifies that the EPA “shall not complete, before October 26, 2025, any review of the criteria for ozone … or the national ambient air quality standard for ozone… or propose, before such date, any revisions to such criteria or standard.”  It would also require EPA to consider both technological feasibility and potential economic impacts before setting or revising air pollution standards.

Launching the House markup Tuesday, Energy & Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton, R-Mich., explained that EPA’s 2008 ozone standards are working and that EPA’s tougher 2015 standards should be implemented “sequentially instead of simultaneously.” He said by passing the ozone bill, “the 2008 standards and other federal regulations already in place would continue to bring down ozone levels until 2024, when the newer standard would then be implemented.” Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, said “No one opposes clean air and clean water” but that implementing the 2015 ozone standards before states have met the 2008 standards would be “extremely expensive” and "lead to incredible costs for my home state of Ohio."

The House ozone, bill introduced by Pete Olson, R-Texas, is billed as bipartisan because along with 32 Republican co-sponsors, there are three Democrats: Henry Cuellar of Texas, Sanford Bishop of Georgia, and Jim Costa of California. The Senate bill, introduced by Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V., has only Republicans as co-sponsors – Arizona’s Jeff Flake and John McCain, Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe, Texas’s John Cornyn, and Louisiana’s David Vitter and Bill Cassidy – reflecting slimmer prospects for passage. 

Cuellar tells Agri-Pulse that he co-sponsored the ozone bill because “As a strong supporter of business and the economic growth and opportunities they provide for our communities, I know the negative impact that rapidly implementing the EPA’s new ozone standard could have on economic development in my district. We need to find a way to balance the need for environmental protection with the feasibility of implementing these standards in an economically viable way.”  

Olson, meanwhile, said he hopes to win more Democrats’ support for his bill and that he “will consider any reasonable amendment that helps states move forward on improving air quality.” Welcoming the companion Senate bill, he hopes that passing the bill in the House “will provide momentum’’ in the upper chamber.

In his opening statement Tuesday, Olson explained that “State after state is telling us what we already know: The Clean Air Act is hugely important, but it is also imperfect.” He stressed that his bill doesn’t fundamentally change the Clean Air Act or undo the 2015 standard. Instead, he said “This bill seeks to help EPA so they can implement the Clean Air Act in a way that is actually achievable.”

Olson said that although his bill would require EPA to consider costs, “Economics is a secondary consideration. Health is still the number-one priority.”

In the bill’s subcommittee markup, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., called the bill “a radical attempt to gut the Clean Air Act.” Smiling, Republican Joe Barton of Texas denied that was the case. “This bill simply slows it down a little bit . . . That’s not gutting the Clean Air Act.” But Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the House Energy Committee’s ranking member, said the bill “would allow polluters to override scientists. It would require EPA to set up air quality standards based on profits rather than public health.”

“The American public has waited for too long for protection from high levels of ozone,” Pallone said. He warned that further delay – such as replacing the Clean Air Act’s five-year requirement for standards reviews with a 10-year period – would increase illnesses and premature deaths caused by air pollution and forgo billions of dollars in potential economic benefits from cleaner air.

Signaling the Democrats’ strong objections, Pallone dismissed the ozone bill as “an irresponsible attack that strikes at the heart of the Clean Air Act and would undermine decades of progress on cleaning up pollution and protecting public health.” He pointed out that along with delaying EPA’s proposed ozone measures, the bill also would limit EPA’s ability to reduce carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, particle pollution, and lead levels.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, leading a coalition of nearly 200 businesses and industry groups, disagrees. It argues that the ozone bill would provide “an important step towards air standards that balance environmental protection and economic development” by following a slower implementation schedule “that maintains continued air quality improvement without unnecessarily straining state and local economic resources.”

The American Petroleum Institute (API), the main trade association for the oil and gas industry, insists that “the U.S. government has a responsibility to keep federal regulations sensible and not change standards on businesses and consumers needlessly.”

“There are many areas of the country where the naturally occurring level of ozone is above what the EPA is considering, so it is not right to hold a county or state to a standard that is impossible to reach,” API adds.  “Tightening ozone standards could increase costs to the American public, reduce America’s ability to compete internationally, and threaten American jobs.”

These criticisms of tighter standards for ozone, with most nonattainment linked to the use of fossil fuels, were directly challenged in congressional testimony last year.

In a House Energy and Commerce hearing, George Washington University of Law Professor Robert Glicksman stated that “strong standards to reduce ozone air pollution are both necessary to fulfill the Clean Air Act’s congressionally-mandated public health goals and consistent with a strong economy in which manufacturers can prosper and thrive.”

Citing adverse health effects from ozone exposure, Glicksman said current EPA rules “help prevent around 4,300 premature deaths, 86,000 emergency room visits, and 3.2 million lost school days every year.” He added that with further measures to limit ozone, “EPA estimates that by 2020 these rules will deliver even greater benefits, helping prevent as many as 7,000 premature deaths, 120,000 emergency room visits, and 5.4 million lost school days every year.”

Among other benefits, Glicksman noted that EPA estimates that in 2010 its rules prevented $5.5 billion worth of crops and forest products being lost to ozone-related damage and that by 2020, “EPA predicts that they will annually prevent losses of crops and forest products worth $10.7 billion.”

Pointing out that “regulatory compliance generates economic activity,” Glicksman testified that “existing studies do not support the conclusion that regulation retards job growth. Instead, the studies find either no overall impact or, in some cases, an actual increase in employment.”

“While the cost of regulation may be less in China or India, few Americans would want to live with the appalling air and water pollution present in those two countries,” Glicksman said. Contending that environmental regulations can increase rather than decrease competitiveness, he concluded that “There is considerable evidence that as firms innovate in response to regulatory requirements, they become stronger international competitors because of innovation.”


(This story was updated at 8 p.m. to include House committee vote.) 

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