With the Obama administration facing a deadline this week to suggest any changes to the national air quality standards for soot, the pressure is building on all sides.
The American Petroleum Institute got an early start today and opposed any changes, insisting that stricter rules could harm the economy by making it harder to drill for oil and gas in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, large health groups that represent pediatricians, cardiologists and lung doctors are meeting with top administration officials tomorrow to make the case that soot from older diesel engines, power plants and other industrial sources is still killing tens of thousands of Americans every year.
Everything falls now to the White House, which is reviewing the proposal and may tread carefully in an election year in order to avoid the blistering attacks from industry. The administration backed away last summer from stricter standards for ozone, the main ingredient in smog, on concerns that more of the country could fall into "nonattainment," raising the bar for industrial operations that need air pollution permits.
"From a business perspective, when you're creating nonattainment areas, that means noninvestment," said Howard Feldman, the director of regulatory and scientific affairs at API, during a call with reporters this morning.
Sources close to U.S. EPA say they don't know what the administration's proposal will contain or when it will be released. But it may come out by the end of this week, because a federal judge has given EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson until Thursday to sign a proposal and the agency has not asked to extend that deadline.
The standards are meant to prevent people from being exposed to particulate matter, a blend of dust and soot that comes in a variety of sizes. Jackson has said she will focus on the smallest particles.
Several times over the past few years, the agency's staffers and outside science advisers have told Jackson and her predecessors that these fine particles still pose a pervasive public health threat across the country. Health groups such as the American Lung Association pressed for stricter standards, but the administration ran late with its review.
States, environmentalists and health groups sued EPA to force its hand. They struck an agreement this month to make a final decision by Dec. 14, and EPA air chief Gina McCarthy said Friday she feels "very comfortable" about that date.
McCarthy said EPA will also meet this week's due date for a proposal, though she gave no indication of what the agency will suggest. A version of the rule is still under interagency review at the Office of Management and Budget, according to a White House database that tracks the process.
"I think the court recognized that we've been working on it, and it's ready to go," McCarthy told reporters. "They just set a date for that, and we'll be ready."
'Public has a right to know'
Fine particles, called PM 2.5 for short because they're smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, are now the most pressing of the conventional pollutants that EPA regulates, said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, a group of state and local regulators.
"Of all of the pollutants, the public should be most concerned about exposure to fine particles, because those are the ones that are leading to thousands of premature deaths each year," he said.
Most parts of the United States meet the existing standards, and even the big cities that struggle with fine particles have much cleaner air than their counterparts in places like China. There, faced with a citizen uproar, the Chinese government has pressured American embassies and consulates to stop sending out hourly updates on the levels of fine particles in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai (Greenwire, June 8).
But a series of high-profile epidemiological studies, such as Harvard University's Six Cities Study, have linked fine particles to tens of thousands of deaths even where the air is relatively clean. When the pollution levels spiked in places such as Watertown, Mass.; St. Louis; and Steubenville, Ohio, the number of people dying ticked up by a few percentage points.
Experts say the elderly, the sick and people with respiratory and heart problems face the greatest risk.
Members of the American Public Health Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Thoracic Society, American Health Association and National Association of County and City Health Officials, among others, will make their case during tomorrow's meeting at OMB, said Janice Nolen, director of national policy at the American Lung Association.
They hope to avoid a repeat of last year, when President Obama personally intervened to block stricter ozone rules, even though cities wouldn't have needed to clean up their air for years or even decades.
"A lot of folks want to make the point to the White House that it needs to support a strong, protective standard for PM, which is something that we haven't had in a long, long time," Nolen said. "The public has a right to know what levels are safe. And right now, they don't."
EPA is bound by the Clean Air Act to set standards that protect public health with a margin of safety. A unanimous Supreme Court ruling that came down at the beginning of the George W. Bush administration said the agency is not allowed to consider costs.
This makes the standard for fine particles a particularly tricky one. Top officials at EPA have been told by staff experts and outside science advisers that the risk posed by fine particles has no threshold -- in other words, that the air might not be completely safe until there are no fine particles in the air.
Jeff Holmstead, an industry attorney at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP who was previously the air chief at EPA, has said the evidence was quite convincing when, under President George W. Bush, the agency came out with tougher rules to cut the emissions from diesel engines like the ones used in construction equipment.
"It's pretty clear that at least with respect to ozone and PM 2.5, lower is always better," Holmstead said. "It seems as though there are at least subtle effects all the way down to background levels. The effects aren't as serious, and they don't occur in as many people, but it appears, at least for ozone and PM 2.5, that there are always going to be some health effects" E&E Daily, Oct. 5, 2011).
Some of the largest sources are already being cleaned up. New laws and regulations for sources such as power plants, boilers and new diesel engines are expected to lower PM 2.5 emissions by 1 million tons, or 20 percent, within the next few years, API says.
But when the air quality standards get tightened, it triggers a wave of new regulatory actions. State and local governments have to monitor their air and see where they stand, and then come up with plans for meeting the new standards. Those plans can make it more challenging to build or expand a facility with emissions, making the air quality standards a target for large businesses.
The oil industry is worried about new nonattainment areas in places such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the rush to drill natural gas from shale formations also holds the risk of air quality problems. EPA has already cracked down on the large diesel engines used at natural gas compressor stations, and "there's no telling what additional rules would be imposed," said Feldman of API.
His trade group wants Jackson to consider a range of options, including leaving the PM 2.5 standards at their current levels. It made that argument yesterday during a meeting at the White House, joined by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, National Association of Manufacturers, American Forest and Paper Association, and National Oilseed Processors Association.
Such a step would give the administration the option of backing away from a change to the rules, and if Obama loses his re-election bid in November, it could give a new president the choice of doing nothing without issuing a new proposal.
"We'll have another chance to talk about all the science down the road, and what is convincing and what is not convincing, and what policy judgment the administration should make in setting the standard," Feldman said. "There are no bright lines in all of this. This is a policy judgment."