Industry Opponents of Safer Air Knows It's Coming; They Just Want to Deny You That Right

The National Association of Manufacturers recently made a significant admission about EPA's proposal to deliver safer health standards for smog pollution to Americans. NAM went on record agreeing that safer air can be achieved within the levels proposed by EPA simply by following cleanup measures that already have been adopted.

A NAM vice president, indeed their leading lobbyist on environmental matters, recently authored an essay that referenced and affirmed testimony by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy about smog pollution: "existing efforts to reduce air pollutants are on track to put almost all of our nation (all but nine counties) at or below 70 parts per billion [of smog pollution] by 2025." (emphasis added)

This recognition by NAM is significant to the debate over safer air for several reasons.

  • NAM's concession represents a departure from the heretofore unified polluting industry tirade against setting health standards for smog below today's unprotective concentrations of 75 parts per billion. NAM recognizes that we will achieve safer air "at or below 70 parts per billion" under business-as-usual, just by following existing pollution reduction steps.
  • The NAM admission destroys clean-air opponents' insistence that safer air below 75 is effectively unachievable.
  • NAM's recognition severely undercuts the trillion dollar compliance hyperbole in NAM's own talking points opposing safer air. Much of that hyperbole springs from an absurdly biased and flawed report that NAM paid for, one that independent experts and economists have deemed "insane" and "unmoored from any economic reality."
  • NAM's concession makes clear just how much the political and industry campaign against safer air is rooted in opposition to a legally recognized, legally enforceable right to safe air for all Americans. Just like the Clean Air Act guarantees.

This last point bears emphasis: NAM believes smog pollution will be lowered to safer levels within the range proposed by EPA, "at or below 70 parts per billion," simply by letting adopted cleanup measures work. NAM just doesn't want Americans to have a legal right to safer air at or below those levels. NAM wants to stop EPA from setting safer health standards for smog pollution--so NAM's member companies will have the right to keeping polluting at unsafe levels, well above EPA's proposed range, across the country.

The reality of modestly safer air thanks to just carrying out adopted cleanup measures reinforces the importance of adopting scientifically compelled health standards that are truly safe for Americans. EPA's independent, congressionally-sanctioned science and medical advisors, the Clean Air Science Advisory Council, has urged EPA to adopt safer health standards for ozone pollution between 60 and 70 parts per billion. Significantly, the council warned that 70 parts per billion "may not meet the statutory requirement to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety." By contrast, CASAC affirms 60 would provide greater protection than 70 and 65, and 60 "would provide an adequate margin of safety" (a definitive statement the advisors did not offer even about 65). EPA needs to set health standards for smog pollution at 60 parts per billion. NRDC has joined the American Lung Association and numerous other health organizations in supporting that standard.

The NAM vice president's essay struggled to argue that with current measures delivering safer air at or below 70, this somehow supported NAM's agenda not to improve the legal health standard at all below the current 75. This argument makes no sense. Unsurprisingly, media outlets called out the noteworthiness of the essay (in an item titled "Conflicting Information") for the same reasons observed here: NAM's "comment would seem to suggest that the EPA's upper limit [70 ppb] wouldn't actually change much in the world of ozone regulation."

Now evidently appreciating the significance of the concession, the NAM vice president has written a hasty blog post seeking to re-frame NAM's admission. But the effort backfires. The defensive blog post resorts to mischaracterizing how the Clean Air Act works in multiple respects:

  • The NAM post says that when EPA adopts safer health standards this fall, "manufacturers will be required from that day forward to show attainment with the tighter limits in order to get permits for new construction or major modifications to their facilities." (emphasis in original). This is false. Areas of the country not meeting or "attaining" the safer standard do not require permits for new construction to show attainment with tighter limits. Permits and new construction can proceed without showing the safer limits will be attained in that area; but the increased air pollution caused by the new construction must be controlled with modern technology and offset to prevent the already unsafe air quality in that area from getting worse. What is true is that in areas already meeting the safer standards, new construction may not be so heavily polluting that it tips the area into noncompliance. Facilities can take any number of steps to avoid this outcome. This includes adopting modern pollution control equipment--which facilities already are required to do today. So any angst is misplaced.
  • The NAM post says that EPA will "designate" areas of the country that fail to meet a safer standard in 2017. Assuming promulgation of a safer health standard in late 2015, the Clean Air gives EPA until late 2017 to make designations, with the possibility of an extension until late 2018, if justified. (See my earlier post here for an overview of Clean Air Act timelines following updates to health standards.)
  • The NAM post then skips past two key realities: For most cleanup measures, states have three years from the date a safer smog standard is adopted to suggest cleanup plans to EPA, giving states until late 2018. Now here's the first key: the Clean Air Act does not require regulated industries to comply with the control measures contained in state plans until EPA approves these plans. While the law says EPA has 18 months to approve state submissions (mid-2020), this deadline has proven to be one of the bigger jokes in real-world clean air practice. EPA often takes substantially longer than 18 months (as in many years longer), and NAM knows this. So history tells us the necessary EPA approvals will slip into the 2020's. The second key is that following adoption of safer standards, states are given anywhere from 5 to 22 years running from late 2015 to meet the new standards, depending upon the severity of air pollution in an area. (The dirtiest areas get much longer.) See here (CAA §181). And even then states can extend their attainment deadlines.

So contrary to NAM's scrambling blog post, extended Clean Air Act deadlines will push most areas of the country toward the 2025 date when EPA and NAM both recognize today's cleanup measures will have caused all but 8 or 9 counties nationally to meet safer smog standards at or below 70 parts per billion.

The end result of the latest NAM effort is to reinforce the powerful truth behind NAM's original concession: safer air can be delivered to Americans with measures that already are working. So there can be no justification for failing to set legally enforceable health standards for smog pollution at levels that medical science tells us are safe.

We are steadily achieving safer air. Enforcing the law to uphold Americans' right to truly safe air will be achieved more easily than the doomsday prophets are predicting.