U.S. EPA won't meet its goal of releasing new nationwide standards for ground-level ozone this month, the agency told a federal court Friday.
Finishing the standards has taken longer than expected, EPA said in a filing with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The agency will now move forward "on or around the end of October," according to the filing.
The revelation confirms weeks of rumors about a delay in the release of the ozone rule, which is expected to be one of the Obama administration's most ambitious -- and costly -- efforts to address smog and other types of conventional air pollution. Though EPA is expected to set stricter limits when it finishes reconsidering the George W. Bush administration's 2008 ozone standards, the decision to wait on a final rule could signal some hesitation, experts say.
The current political climate would make it "convenient" for EPA to release the standards after November's midterm election, said Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute.
Frank O'Donnell, president of advocacy group Clean Air Watch, agreed. The decision to delay the final rule could reflect intense political pressure on the agency, he wrote in an e-mail on Friday.
"Given the florid anti-government rhetoric over virtually everything the EPA does, are there any bets that this decision could be delayed just a bit longer?" O'Donnell said.
That type of calculation is common, said Jeff Holmstead, EPA's air chief during the George W. Bush administration. The agency was not under a legal deadline to issue its final rule, he noted.
"It's at this time when the political folks begin to think about how things would look for the election," Holmstead said. "A lot of people already believe the Obama administration is much more concerned about regulating industry than it is about jobs, so I wouldn't be surprised to see them put it off."
In a draft rule released last January, the agency proposed lowering the air quality standard for ozone to between 60 and 70 parts per billion (ppb), which was the range suggested by the agency's scientific advisers during the George W. Bush administration. Under his watch, EPA lowered the standard from 85 ppb to 75 ppb (Greenwire, Jan. 7).
As the main ingredient in smog, ozone is linked to breathing problems and poor visibility. The American Lung Association, which sued EPA for setting looser standards than recommended by scientists, criticized the agency for missing its self-imposed deadline.
"Delays in setting the standard translate into delays in putting clean up measures in place that can reduce ozone and protect the health of millions of people," said Charles Connor, the group's president, in a statement. "We urge EPA to move forward aggressively to prevent any additional delay."
States implementing the rule would meet the tougher standard primarily by limiting releases of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which mix in the atmosphere and form ozone when exposed to sunlight. Through the ozone standards and EPA's newly proposed Clean Air Transport Rule, the agency intends to reduce NOx emissions 52 percent from 2005 levels by 2014.
Criticism from businesses, lawmakers
The ozone reconsideration has drawn heavy criticism from businesses, some of which would be required to control emissions of those ozone precursors. EPA has estimated that a standard between 60 and 70 ppb would offer health benefits ranging from $13 billion to $100 billion at a cost of between $19 billion and $90 billion.
In a meeting with EPA Senior Policy Counsel Robert Sussman on Aug. 2, representatives of API said the agency should conduct a new scientific review and release a new ozone standard in 2013. New studies suggest the public health impacts of ozone are overstated and that emissions from Asia are having a greater impact than previously thought, according to the group's presentation.
"Do not change the standards without a full review of the new health studies and without correcting background ozone levels," API said.
The high cost of compliance has also prompted a backlash on Capitol Hill.
Last month, the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds EPA voted down a rider that would have barred the agency from spending federal funding on reconsideration of the Bush-era ozone standard (E&E Daily, July 23).
In one letter, sent earlier this month, Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) urged EPA to scrap its reconsideration of the Bush-era ozone rule. The letter, which was also signed by Sens. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and David Vitter (R-La.), raised concerns about the economic impacts of the rule.
"Given the absence of new or different scientific data, EPA should maintain the current ozone standards," the letter said. "Moving to change the standard again, outside of the Clean Air Act's normal five-year review process, as local communities are struggling to meet the existing standard, would be unfair and unwise (E&E Daily, Aug. 6).
Click here to read the court filing.
Click here to read API's presentation.