The US Environmental Protection Agency released a draft rule on Wednesday that would reduce the allowable amount of emitted ozone, a chemical that contributes to the formation of smog and can cause premature death, irritation of the lungs, asthma, and low birth weight in babies.
It's the latest in a series of Clean Air Act regulations President Barack Obama has proposed to curb pollution that compromises public health or contributes to climate change. Environmentalists, public health organizations, and Democrats have celebrated the proposed rule, while business groups and Republicans argue that the costs of compliance are excessively burdensome on the economy.
"The EPA's proposal to strengthen the standard is a step forward in the fight to protect all Americans from the dangers of breathing ozone pollution, especially to protect our children, our older adults, and those living with lung or heart disease," Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, said in a statement. "To that end, we will focus on ensuring that the final ozone standard provides the most protection possible to the American people, especially the most vulnerable."
Current allowable levels of ozone are 75 parts per million (ppm) at ground level. The EPA has recommended that level be reduced to 65-70 ppm, and is considering a cap as low as 60 ppm.
"Fulfilling the promise of the Clean Air Act has always been EPA's responsibility," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said. "Our health protections have endured because they're engineered to evolve, so that's why we're using the latest science to update air quality standards — to fulfill the law's promise, and defend each and every person's right to clean air."
Once the proposed rules are published in the Federal Register, the public has 90 days to comment. The agency plans to hold three public hearings on the rules, and aims to issue its final ozone standards by October 1, 2015.
According to EPA estimates, the reduction in illnesses, infirmity, and premature deaths amount to a return of three dollars in health benefits for every dollar that it costs to implement the new standards. The agency estimates the costs to oil refineries, power plants, and other types of industry to be in the range of $3.9 and $15 billion annually in 2025 — a price tag disputed by industry groups.
The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) puts the price tag much higher, calling the proposed rule, if implemented, "the most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public." In a July study, NAM concluded that the lower cap on ozone would shrink the economy by $270 billion per year, result in 2.9 million fewer jobs per year through 2040, cost the average US household $1,570 per year in lost consumption, and increase electricity costs for manufacturers and households.
"This new standard comes at the same time dozens of other new EPA regulations are being imposed that collectively place increased costs, burdens and delays on manufacturers, threaten our international competitiveness and make it nearly impossible to grow jobs," NAM president and CEO Jay Timmons said in a statement issued Wednesday.
The Obama administration's string of air quality amendments, however, are precisely the type of aggressive action that environmentalists and Democrats have long sought. Facing persistent Congressional opposition to laws aimed at combating climate change or protecting the public from harmful air pollution, Obama has used executive authority to limit greenhouse gas emissions for vehicle tailpipes as well as from new and existing power plants.
"The US can, and must, continue the progress we have already made in reducing emissions from power plants, vehicles and other sources of pollution," the Coalition for Clean Air said in a statement Wednesday. "We have solutions available, including energy efficiency, renewable power, electric vehicles, public transit, and improved land use planning."
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