AIR POLLUTION:

EPA reveals Jackson's preferred path on ozone

U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was planning to set a stricter nationwide limit on ground-level ozone when the White House axed the plan last month, the 468-page rulemaking package prepared by the agency yesterday shows.

The draft rule shows that Jackson wanted to set the national air quality standard for ozone, the main ingredient in smog, at 70 parts per billion, as she told a House subcommittee last month.

Jackson had proposed a standard within the 60 to 70 ppb range early last year, tougher than 75 ppb standard chosen in 2008 by the George W. Bush administration and in line with the recommendation of EPA's science advisers. But in a rare rebuke to one of his agencies, President Obama told EPA to wait until the next review wraps up in 2013.

In its statements on the decision, the White House suggested that concerns about the economy were at the forefront, but EPA argues in its rule that the United States can clean up smog without draining its pocketbook.

"We have made steady progress in public health protection without jeopardizing the country's economic progress," the draft final rule says. "As we look to the future," it adds, "EPA believes we can make this kind of progress again -- progress that will help prevent damage to children's developing lungs, cut the frequency and severity of asthma attacks, and reduce medication use, doctors' visits and trips to the hospital, and the risk of premature death now understood to be associated with [ozone] exposure."

The agency's plan would have prevented more health problems than the George W. Bush-era standard of 75 parts per billion, but it also would have cost more, an updated cost-benefit analysis sent to the White House shows.

EPA economists found that setting a standard of 70 ppb would cost $19 billion to $25 billion per year -- including the $7.6 billion to $8.8 billion in costs associated with the Bush standard. Put into dollars and cents, the health benefits would have been worth $11 billion to $37 billion per year.

States and environmental groups, which had sued EPA seeking stricter air quality standards, will likely use the package in court as they argue that the Bush-era standards are weaker than the law requires. They may also sue EPA to make the agency establish those standards more quickly, hoping to speed up the health benefits of pollution cuts.

The American Lung Association and the environmental law firm Earthjustice filed Freedom of Information Act requests with EPA and the White House Office of Management and Budget today, hoping to figure out why the administration decided to reject Jackson's plan.

Jeff Holmstead, an industry attorney at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, said the episode has had an ironic outcome for environmental and public health advocates. They argued that the Bush-era standards were not strong enough, but EPA waited three years to implement them while it decided what to do.

"It turns out that the environmental community would have been much better just living with 75," said Holmstead, who was EPA's air chief during the Bush administration but had already left when it tightened the ozone standard in 2008.

Click here to read the draft rule.

Click here to read the draft cost-benefit analysis.

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