Climate + Energy

Making the Best of a Smoggy Situation

It’s been a busy few weeks, but one notable glimmer of hope came out late last week:  despite being rebuffed by President Obama, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is staying the course and reinvigorating her efforts to tackle smog here in the U.S.

And to kick things off, her Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, Gina McCarthy, issued a memo last week affirming the EPA’s intent to finalize its designation of nonattainment areas.

The issue here is pretty simple.  Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA sets ambient air quality standards at a level necessary to protect public health and welfare.  Once established, the EPA then has to look across the country and find out which areas are violating those standards.  If an area is in violation, it’s declared “nonattainment.”  This designation triggers a mandatory duty for both states and the EPA to clean up the unhealthy air pollution.

Here, EPA promulgated ambient air quality standards for ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog, in 2008.  These standards were later found to be legally and scientifically unjustified, but nevertheless they were stronger than the previous standards.  The older standard, which came out in 1997, limited ozone concentrations to 85 parts per billion.  The 2008 standard limited concentrations to 75.  Yet the EPA’s own science advisers recommended a standard between 60 and 70 parts per billion.  So while the 2008 standard was stronger, it wasn’t strong enough.

That’s why in January of 2010, Lisa Jackson and the EPA decided to revise the 2008 standards and make them as strong as the science demanded.  In doing so, the EPA also decided to hold off on doing anything to implement the 2008 standards.  They reasoned that, even though the 2008 standards were were stronger, they’d be irrelevant in the face of a scientifically and legally justified standard, so why waste the effort.

That logic made a lot of sense at the time, but who knew that President Obama would put political expedience ahead of science and the law.

That’s why we filed suit against the EPA and have teed up two more to force the Obama Administration to at least start implementing the 2008 ozone standards.  It’s a travesty that President Obama would lead this nation on into believing that stronger ozone standards were on the horizon, then pull the rug from under them.  Fortunately, despite the politics of it all, the President isn’t above the Clean Air Act.

And fortunately, the EPA is heeding the writing on the wall.  As Assistant Administrator McCarthy said in her most recent memo:

[T]he current standard is 0.075 ppm [75 parts per billion].  This standard will provide additional public health and welfare protection until the next regular review is completed, and EPA fully intends to implement this current standard as required under the Clean Air Act.

It’s not ideal, but when it comes to public health, we need to make the best of it.  An amazing amount of progress has yet to be made to really confront smog in the United States.  The EPA has identified a number of areas likely to be designated nonattainment based on 2010 data, including Sublette County, Wyoming, Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas and more.  Based on 2011 air quality monitoring data, we know that many more areas will be included.

So, here’s to clean air and making the best of a bad situation, and here’s a tip of the hat to the EPA and Lisa Jackson.  It’s a shame that President Obama naively sacrificed our health for perceived political gain, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t start making progress in reducing smog.  Our aim will be to ensure the EPA acts as quickly as possible to start cleaning up ozone.  With the law on our side, we’ll have a fighting chance for clean air, whether the President likes it or not.

Lisa Jackson stands for clean air, even if President Obama doesn’t.