- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2015

President Obama on Thursday is expected to take what many expect to be the most costly and contentious step in his ambitious environmental agenda — the release of a gargantuan set of federal regulations to restrict ground-level ozone in the name of protecting Americans’ health.

Critics say the sweeping proposal ultimately could bleed $3.4 trillion from the economy through 2040 and could kill as many as 2.9 million jobs, and powerful interest groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others in recent months have launched an unprecedented public relations effort to stop it. Officials at the local, state and federal levels — including some Democrats — also have raised serious concerns about the rules, and even Mr. Obama has conceded that the economic impact of the ozone proposal is something that must be considered.

But the Environmental Protection Agency maintains reining in ozone — produced by the burning of fossil fuels, industrial operations and other activities — is necessary to improve air quality, reduce asthma levels and generally benefit the health of all Americans.

Should the rules go into effect, they would be felt across the U.S. economy, on everything from automobiles to power plants.

In order for cities and counties to meet the more stringent standards, they would have to impose specific ozone restrictions. Costly pollution-control equipment likely would be required on cars, chemical plants, manufacturing facilities and in many other areas of the economy. Responsibility to meet the standards would fall entirely on local governments, and critics say the pollution controls would drive up the price on virtually all products — including electricity — made and sold in the U.S.

EPA officials reiterated their case before Congress this week and tried to downplay the overall impact the regulations will have, saying the ozone standards, in conjunction with a proposal known as the Clean Power Plan to limit carbon emissions from power plants, will ultimately be beneficial and cost-effective for the country.

“We are convinced by both our analyses and our experiences that both the carbon pollution reduction called for under the Clean Power Plan and the attainment of the ozone standard will extend the trajectory of the last 40 years when we’ve cut air pollution 70 percent, all while our economy has tripled,” top EPA official Janet McCabe told the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Tuesday.

It’s estimated that at least 499 counties across the country could fall short of the EPA’s updated ozone standards, meaning they could become ineligible for federal highway funding or face other penalties, though the agency denies funding cuts will be a consequence of noncompliance.

Some areas of the country still aren’t in compliance with the existing ozone standard.

In a draft proposal released earlier this year, the EPA proposed changing the current national ozone standard — 75 parts per billion (ppb) — to 65 or 70 ppb. Climate change activists and environmentalists have called on the agency to adopt an even lower standard, perhaps as stringent as 60 ppb.

Opponents say the consequences of such a move will be absolutely devastating to the economy and argue the rules, at their core, are unnecessary because air quality has improved dramatically in recent years under the current standard.

“A 60 ppb standard would threaten that quality of life and would result in devastating economic consequences and job losses for Americans in localities just like the one you represent,” Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, wrote Wednesday in an open letter. “This regulation’s strict mandates will force manufacturers to shut down, scrap or modify existing facilities. This means higher costs for consumers and lost jobs.”

“If your city happens to fall out of compliance with the new standard, the challenges for manufacturers become even greater — and so do the challenges for your local government and citizens,” Mr. Timmons warned.

Ad wars

The business lobby, along with other opponents of the proposal, have launched advertising campaigns and undertaken other efforts to try to convince the EPA not to impose the updated, stricter standards.

“I certainly hope the message has gotten through,” said Kyle Isakower, vice president for regulatory and economic policy at the American Petroleum Institute.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers of both parties say the ozone thresholds are unrealistic and will put some areas of the country out of compliance from the day the regulations go into effect.

“I’m deeply concerned about it,” Sen. Michael F. Bennet, Colorado Democrat, said in August. “This is a perfect example of applying the law but doing it in a way that doesn’t make sense on the ground.”

Republicans have been even harsher in their critiques, saying the EPA has been downplaying just how much of the country will fall short of the new levels.

“It is unarguable that tightening EPA’s ozone standard to 70 ppb would have significant detrimental impacts to our economy,” Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said this week. “The price tag that comes along with tightening the ozone standard still boasts the most expensive regulation in U.S. history, even at an anticipated 70 ppb. Let’s keep the facts straight and keep our economy from footing the bill.”

Even Mr. Obama has said the fears of economic harm are legitimate and must be considered, though it remains to be seen how seriously the EPA will weigh the possible consequences of its actions.

“I recognize some of the concerns,” the president told the Business Roundtable in September. “Even with the costs associated with implementing the ozone rule, when you do a cost-benefit [analysis], the amount of lives saved, asthma averted and so forth is still substantially higher than the costs. Now, that doesn’t necessarily resolve all the concerns that people may have about local costs being borne, whereas the savings are spread out more broadly. And those are legitimate economic issues that have to be considered.”

The EPA already has faced pushback from federal courts for failing to consider the economic fallout from its rules and regulations. Earlier this year the Supreme Court tossed the agency’s mercury and air toxics standards, saying the administration failed to adequately consider costs when it issued its rules.

Despite that, environmental groups are mounting a last-minute push for even stricter regulations.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, for example, is urging the EPA to go further than the expected 70 ppb standard.

“The president’s decision will determine whether he leaves behind a positive and fully protective legacy on health standards safeguarding Americans against unsafe smog levels. Whatever he decides on is likely to remain the standard for many years to come, raising the stakes even further,” John D. Walke, NRDC’s clean air director, wrote this week.

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