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EPA's New Smog Rule: All Cost And No Benefit?

Does Missaukee County, Michigan, really have a dangerous air pollution problem

The 574-square-mile region, nestled in the northwestern part of the state's lower peninsula, is home to all of 15,000 people. Its economy consists mainly of Christmas tree, dairy and livestock farms, and summer vacationers. The nearest "cities" are Cadillac to the west (population 10,281), and Grayling to the northeast (population 1,863).

Yet new smog rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday would treat this little county like Los Angeles, with pollution serious enough to harm its people and require EPA-approved, and potentially very costly, remediation.

Under the proposed regulations — which the Obama administration put off over two election cycles — communities would have to keep their ozone levels below 70 parts per billion, and possibly as low as 60 ppb.

Smog Rule Vs. Rural America

That's down from the 75 ppb limit set in 2008. While that might seem like a small drop, it would push vast numbers of sparsely populated areas of states like Idaho, South Dakota, Maine, New Hampshire, Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Minnesota and West Virginia — where no counties violate today's standard — into the red zone.

Even Colorado's La Plata County — almost half of which is inside the San Juan National Forest — would violate the new standard.

By the EPA's own estimate, 558 counties across all but a handful of states would be deemed smog polluters under its new rules. In 2012, the EPA classified just 231 counties as noncompliant with the existing standard. And except for those in California, all were deemed to have either "marginal" or "moderate" problems.

Results like this are why critics say that the new smog rule would be the most intrusive and expensive regulation imposed on the country, with compliance cost estimates ranging up to $270 billion a year. While the EPA says that it will cost just $15 billion a year by 2025, no one denies that the rule will, if enacted, be sweeping and vastly expensive.

The Supreme Court said Tuesday that it will hear a case to decide if the EPA should have considered the cost of rules on mercury and other toxic emissions.

Hazy Benefits

The EPA says that the smog rule's costs will nevertheless be worth it, because research shows that the current standard can still cause or aggravate asthma and other lung diseases, worsen other health problems and lead to premature deaths.

But there is plenty of disagreement over such health claims.

One filing from various industry groups argues that "available evidence does not support EPA's conclusions regarding long-term ozone-related respiratory effects," and notes that the EPA's own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee admitted to "key uncertainties and research that need to be addressed.

Backers might dismiss such industry complaints as unreliable or self-serving. But there's a report from Texas' Commission on Environmental Quality that concluded, "There will be little to no public health benefit from lowering the current standard.

"The EPA's own modeling," says Michael Honeycutt, director of the Texas commission's toxicology division, "indicates that lowering ozone concentrations would actually result in more deaths in some cities.

To further muddy the EPA claims, asthma rates have risen even as ozone has steadily declined. From 2003 to 2010, EPA data show that ozone levels nationwide fell 11%. But the number of people suffering asthma attacks climbed 26%, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In addition, the states with the highest prevalence of adults with asthma are those with little smog — including Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Oregon and Washington. Meanwhile, California, despite chronic smog conditions in its most densely populated areas, ranks 30th.

Another major problem with further lowering the ozone bar is that it would set the limit even closer to background levels in some areas, making compliance difficult if not impossible.

"Virtually any human activity that produced emissions could ultimately be restricted or affected," warns the American Petroleum Institute's director of regulatory and scientific affairs, Howard Feldman.

What's more, it turns out that reducing smog levels will be far more difficult because, scientists now realize, trees are a key and growing ozone contributor since they emit "volatile organic compounds.

While man-made VOC sources have fallen, "tree-produced varieties have increased dramatically in some parts of the country," a 2004 Princeton University study found.

The surprised researchers speculated that the finding "may help explain why ozone levels have not improved in some parts of the country as much as anticipated with the enactment of clean air laws.

Newer research found that when certain trees dominate a city street, they can "raise the ozone level considerably," said a Scientific American articlethis year.

The bottom line is that while the costs and benefits of tighter smog rules might be hazy, it's clear that the proposed rules would vastly expand the EPA's regulatory reach.