Air Pollution

Scientific American's Biello discusses EPA's proposed smog regulations

As U.S. EPA begins a series of three public hearings on air quality standards for smog, what will stricter smog regulations mean for cities and consumers? During today's OnPoint, David Biello, associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American, discusses the Obama administration's proposed smog regulations. He explains how the proposed rules differ from the Bush administration's regulations. Biello also discusses the cost-benefit analyses of the stricter rules and their impact on the economy.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is David Biello, associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. David, thanks for coming in.

David Biello: Good to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: David, your work at Scientific American focuses on the intersection of science and public policy and that's in full focus right now with EPA's proposed regulations for smog, so let's sort of backtrack for a moment. What has the Obama administration proposed on smog that's different from the Bush EPA?

David Biello: So, primarily what he has proposed is following the advice of the Scientific Advisory Committee and that's to lower the standard from about 80 parts per billion right now to 60 to 70 parts per billion. That doesn't sound like a lot. You can think of it as kind of 60 or 70 ping-pong balls in a swimming pool filled with ping-pong balls or 80 ping-pong balls. It doesn't seem like a lot, but it's actually enough to satisfy some of the health and safety concerns that scientists have about the effects of ground-level ozone.

Monica Trauzzi: And what had the Bush administration proposed?

David Biello: They had proposed lowering just to 75, which was higher than what the scientific advisory panel had recommended and, really, had no basis in kind of what is known scientifically of the effects of ground-level ozone. It was more of a policy-driven decision than a science-based decision and that seems to be the direction that the Obama administration wants to go in, is focusing more on the science.

Monica Trauzzi: Right, because critics of the Bush proposal had said that it failed to protect public health.

David Biello: Right.

Monica Trauzzi: The Obama administration has used the term "best science," that's what they're going to use in order to reach their final decision. Were the two administrations looking at different science? I mean what's the scientific disparity?

David Biello: Funnily enough, they were looking at the same science and that's pretty much old science from the 1980s. A lot of these ozone studies were undertaken during the Reagan administration and have been updated since, but the primary findings are really old. So, they were looking at the same studies. The difference is the Obama administration is listening to the recommendations of this group of scientists, rather than the recommendations of perhaps industry or lobbyists or politicians to kind of soften what the science is telling us about ozone. And what the science is telling us about ozone is that it has immediate impacts, even at the levels that the Obama administration is proposing on human health, particularly lung function. It also appears to have impacts on cardiovascular health and can even lead to, even with short term exposures, to decreased lifespan, you know, a quicker death.

Monica Trauzzi: So, there's more of a focus on public health, but what about the business aspect? How might businesses be affected by these new regulations?

David Biello: There's no question it's going to be expensive. The EPA estimates alone are 19 billion on the low end, 90 billion a year on the high end. But you contrast that with benefits, 13 billion on the low end to human health and improved productivity and things of that nature, to 100 billion on the high end. Most likely those numbers are going to come in somewhere in the middle there, probably actually towards the low end. The Bush administration itself thought that its regulations would cost about 9 billion a year and probably those lower numbers are more close to the truth, but there's no doubt that it's going to have a huge impact. And it's particularly going to have a huge impact on local and state governments, because they're the ones who are going to have to come up with these compliance plans. And these regulations, in one form or another, have been in place for decades and, so far, many of the most egregious violators of these standards have never complied and with new, tighter regulations will be even further from compliance.

Monica Trauzzi: So, what kind of reaction have we been seeing from the states about these regulations?

David Biello: It depends certainly on what area of the country you're talking about. In certain parts of the country they're looking for the same kind of results that the Obama administration is looking for, which is improved health and human safety. That's certainly what California is looking for. That's certainly what the city of Houston is looking for, but what is more impactful of this regulation is it's going to affect rural counties, it's going to affect places that think of themselves as having clean air or no smog problems. And, to be honest, most of the emissions that are causing their smog problems or causing them to be in violation of these new standards are not necessarily coming from their county or region. They're drifting in either downwind of Houston, from Houston, even in the case of the West Coast they can be drifting in from overseas.

Monica Trauzzi: Is there a greenhouse gas tie-in in here and has that been considered in the cost benefit analyses?

David Biello: There is a tie-in, but it's kind of a mixed bag. It's kind of hard to tell how that's going to play out. Obviously, cutting ground-level ozone is going to help with kind of the urban heat island effect and things of that nature, but also cutting ozone is, counter intuitively perhaps, going to potentially increase the emissions of other greenhouse gases. So, it's a little bit hard to tell how that's going to play out as these regulations move forward.

Monica Trauzzi: So, EPA has stalled for now their decision on whether certain areas are in compliance with the regulation. Why have they stalled?

David Biello: Two reasons. One, as I mentioned before, so few are actually in compliance who have been kind of out of compliance forever. They remain out of compliance and, despite good efforts, can't seem to hit their mark. Well, the mark is getting even kind of harder to hit and so they're going to be given more time to hit that harder mark. So, we're talking about regulations that aren't going to start taking effect until 2013 at the earliest.

Monica Trauzzi: There's talk about handling several pollutants in one piece of legislation. It's something that Senator Carper has been talking about. Do you think that's something that could work? I mean is that a successful approach if you look at it from the industry perspective, they might get certainty on several fronts all at once?

David Biello: I think the industry definitely most likely would be attracted to that kind of an approach, because that is what they're looking for, certainty across the board. Tell us what pollution controls we need to put in and we'll put them in and that will be the end of it. We know what we have to pay and then we move forward with it. The problem with the four pollutant bill, which has been around for a while, is that while certain elements of it continue to have support, fighting acid rain, fighting smog have support. Fighting greenhouse gases has far less support and bundling them altogether makes it very difficult to pass a bill. That said, because industry is in many cases in favor of it, there have been many calls for greenhouse gas action, whether that be in a stand-alone bill or in something like a four pollutant approach, they want the certainty of knowing that the investments that they make now won't penalize them say 5 or 10 years from now when we change our minds and do decide to do something about greenhouse gases.

Monica Trauzzi: It sort of brings up the debate of regulation versus legislation again, which we're seeing in the greenhouse gas debate and it seems like regulation will be the root here?

David Biello: It's certainly leaning in that direction, but you have to think about it in kind of the long-term perspective. It's all legislation at root, so the regulation is just fulfilling the dictates of legislation that was passed in the 1990s and even as far back as the 1970s with the original Clean Air Act. So, the regulations that are coming into effect with these kind of new powers that have been handed to the EPA courtesy of the Supreme Court are fulfilling the obligations it undertook as part of a legislative mandate 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago. So, it looks like regulation now, that it's actually legislation when you dig a little deeper. That said, there's no doubt it's going to be costly. There's no doubt that it's going to be very difficult for lots of folks to cope with this, but the science is pretty strong that this is not something you want to be breathing in on a daily basis. And I think people who live in a smog affected area, whether that be DC or New York where I'm from, on an ozone alert day you can feel it in your lungs and that probably tells you something.

Monica Trauzzi: Alright, we'll end it right there on that happy note. Thank you for coming on the show.

David Biello: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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