By REP. PETE OLSON and REP. BOB LATTA
WASHINGTON – Pollution is a serious problem. The thick, pea-soup smog that hung over major American cities like New York in the ’70s and ’80s — and famously hangs over Beijing today — is a legitimate concern in our communities.
Looking at our cities today, we know that significant progress has been made. If done properly, we can continue the trend of improving air quality as we continue to grow our economy.
Just last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally released guidance to help states implement a 2008 rule to reduce smog (or ozone) levels to 75 parts per billion (ppb). It will be difficult, but states are getting to work.
However, before states have had a chance to fully implement this 2008 rule, the EPA has already proposed a new, even lower ozone standard. This second rule sounds modest, cutting the allowed level from 75 ppb down to 65 or 70, but the real-world implications of that reduction on hardworking Americans and our economy are enormous.
Ozone is partially formed by the emission of man-made sources, which is what the EPA is targeting with this rule. While factories and cars emit the ingredients for ozone, we also face a tidal wave of ozone coming from China and Mexico, wafting into the United States and impacting our air quality.
Ozone also occurs naturally, dipping down from the (usually good) upper ozone layer or even being emitted by some trees and plants. The simple fact is that it’s physically impossible to get ozone levels to zero. Too many factors are outside our control.
That is what makes the EPA’s new proposal on ozone so difficult — the standards they are considering are so low that they are approaching levels we can’t reach. Achieving the levels the EPA wants is like trying to balance the federal budget without looking at defense or entitlements.
While current law doesn’t require the EPA to lower the standard, if it chooses to do so, it’s not allowed to consider whether the proposal is achievable, let alone affordable. It’s telling that almost half the reductions the EPA says are needed to meet the standard will come from emissions reduction technologies that don’t yet exist.
This will translate to greater costs for the average American. When a county is found in violation of the EPA’s ozone rule, economic growth becomes much harder. For one factory to expand, it must find another factory willing to shrink. Jobs become stuck in line, bogged down by red tape. At best, new highway projects face months of delay.
At worst, the federal government can strip highway funding away from states as a penalty. Power plants could close, and new, job-creating industrial sites may be scaled back.
As states struggle to meet this unattainable rule, they must get creative in ways that go beyond job impacts. Communities in violation could face lower speed limits, limited construction hours and reformulated — generally more expensive — gasoline. Los Angeles has already been forced to restrict the use of backyard barbecues.
We believe there is room for a proper balance that achieves the goal of improving air quality while keeping our economy strong. That’s why we developed legislation that requires the EPA to factor economic impacts and feasibility in the rule-making process.
Our bill, H.R. 1338, the Clean Air, Strong Economies (CASE) Act, requires the EPA to consider the cost and achievability of its rules. Health will always come first, but the agency should explain whether a regulation is even plausible.
Another key component is ensuring the EPA doesn’t change the goal posts in the middle of the game. As mentioned, states have barely begun to implement the current rule. Our bill would require the EPA to wait to lower the current standard until they have largely implemented the existing one.
The CASE Act would also order the EPA to improve the process of explaining the costs and benefits of its rule and how it determines the evidence needed to find counties in violation.
Working together, we can improve air quality in our communities without hurting our economy.
Olson has represented Texas’s 22nd Congressional District since 2009. He sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee. Latta has represented Ohio’s 5th Congressional District since 2007. He sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee.