U.S. EPA Delays Ozone Designations and Demonstrates Change In Priorities

On June 6, 2017, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt notified states that U.S. EPA was extending by one year the deadline for designating those areas in non-compliance with the 2015 ozone standard.  The 2015 ozone standard is 70 parts per billion (ppb), which is lower than the prior ozone standard of 75 ppb established in 2008.

Once U.S. EPA  adopts a new ozone standard it must go through the formal process of designating areas in non-compliance with the standard based upon monitoring data maintained by the states (i.e. "Non-Attainment Areas").  Once Non-Attainment Areas are designated, those areas of the country face tougher permitting requirements and additional regulations to reduce emissions.  

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA had two years to finalize the designations.  Administrator Pruitt's action moved the deadline for designations from October 1, 2017 to October 1, 2018.  

While a one year extension may not seem long, it has dramatic ramifications for states.  As previously discussed on this blog, there are a host of federal regulations targeting power plant and vehicle emissions that are phased in over time.  The more time states are given before designations take effect, the more states can take advantage of the existing federal regulations with are phased in over time.

Meanwhile, Murray Energy Corp v. EPA, Case No. 15-1385, the litigation challenging the 2015 ozone standard, is still pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  The standard was challenged by some companies and states.  

After the change in Administrations, Administrator Pruitt filed a request to stay the litigation while it reviewed the 2015 ozone standard.  On April 11, 2017, the Court granted EPA's request. It is unclear whether EPA's decision to delay the implementation of the standard means it is not actually reconsidering the standard, but from the public comments released by EPA it appears likely it will revoke the 75 ppb standard.

EPA did not provide any clear guidance in its press release announcing its decision to delay implementation of the rule.  However, the public statements in the press release and Administrator Pruitt's letter were interesting as they show a dramatic shift in how EPA views air quality standards since the Administration change.  Here ares some examples of the statements that show the change in priorities:

  • Areas designated as being in “nonattainment” of the standard face consequences, including: increased regulatory burdens, restrictions on infrastructure investment, and increased costs to businesses (It is unusual to see EPA discussing the burden on business rather than the public health benefits from lowering the standard)
  • EPA is giving states more time to develop air quality plans and EPA is looking at providing greater flexibility to states as they develop their plans. 
  • Since 1980, total emissions of the six principal air pollutants have dropped by 63 percent and ozone levels have declined by 33 percent. Despite the continued improvement of air quality, costs associated with compliance of the ozone NAAQS have significantly increased.(Another unusual statement to be found in an EPA press release related to ozone.  Historically, EPA discusses the improvements in air quality, associated health benefits while the U.S. economy has continued to grow)

Based on the statements communicated in the press release and in EPA Administrator's letter to the states it seems very likely EPA will take the controversial step of moving the ozone standard from 70 ppb to 75 ppb which was put in place in 2008.  It is clear the Administration is focused on increased compliance costs to business rather than citing to the public health benefits attributable to a lower standard.

 

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