WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s long-awaited announcement Wednesday that it wants to toughen limits on smog-forming ozone immediately generated questions about whether the plan can survive the current political climate and how much its cost will factor in reaching the goal.
The Environmental Protection Agency proposed strengthening the federal standard for ozone in the air to 65 to 70 parts per billion from its current standard of 75 parts per billion.
The agency and backers of the tighter limit contend that governments, businesses and people in the areas affected by smog will have lots of time to meet the stricter threshold and that evolving technology can help cut pollution at a reasonable cost. Further, the improvements in public health from removing the lung-damaging pollution will save millions of dollars in lost workdays and health care costs, they say.
“We need to be smart — as we always have — in trying to find the best benefits in a way that will continue to grow the economy,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said. Of reducing ozone, she added: “We’ve done it before, and we’re on track to do it again.”
Republicans and business lobbying groups such as the Chamber of Commerce strongly oppose strengthening the ozone standard, arguing that it would be catastrophically expensive. Republican lawmakers who are set to take over Congress in January are considering a range of options to scuttle the rule, including amending the landmark Clean Air Act.
“Today we are breathing the cleanest air since the Clean Air Act was passed in the 1970s, and our country should first look to meet the current ozone standard before we even consider adding more burdensome, costly mandates,” said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who will head the Senate’s environment committee next year.
The argument pitting economic cost against health benefits is a familiar one in environmental regulations. Industry, at the start of a rule-making process, consistently argues that the step being proposed is too costly, said Vince Albanese, former president of the Institute of Clean Air Companies, a trade group for pollution control equipment makers.
But a recent report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service concluded that cost estimates for the ozone plan are highly conjectural, in part because the price of the technology needed to make changes historically falls and the implementation period could take up to 20 years.
Still, reducing pollution could get more expensive, Albanese said, though not necessarily prohibitively so. With so much ozone reduced, mostly from decreases in power plant pollution over the last 40 years, there are fewer places to look for reductions and they could be more costly.
Taking further steps could affect more businesses and consumers, Albanese said, depending on the stringency of the final standard, to be set in October.