EPA Releases New Smog Rule
Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a long-awaited rule targeting ground-level ozone, a respiratory irritant derived from the burning of fossil fuels as well as other industrial activities. Ozone is not directly emitted into the air, but is instead created by a photochemical reaction between nitrogen oxides (NOX) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). Electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents are some of the primary sources of NOX and VOCs.
Until now, the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ozone has been 75 parts per billion (ppb). The agency’s proposal released this past November sought to lower this threshold to a level somewhere between 60 and 70 ppb. EPA’s final rule ratchets the standard down to 70 ppb, a significant drop but perhaps not as onerous as some feared.
The new rule comes as many counties across the U.S. are still working to achieve the 75 ppb standard created in 2008. Despite the significant improvement already made in lowering ozone levels across the country, many stakeholder groups are concerned that yet a more stringent standard could plunge large swaths of the country (including some national parkland where industrial activity is virtually nonexistent) into NAAQS-nonattainment. Such a classification could seriously jeopardize the ability of states to develop industry since each new stationary source could have to be “offset” with emissions reductions elsewhere in the non-attainment area.
Interestingly, today’s release of the new ozone standard comes as a result of yet another “sue and settle” lawsuit filed by environmental groups. In early 2014, a federal judge in Northern California ordered EPA to propose new standards by December 2014, which the agency did.