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New Ozone Regulations - What's the Right Balance?

January 26, 2015   By Jay Hudson in Energy Matters

There are two sources of ozone that are important to us. The ozone in our upper atmosphere protects us from the sun's ultraviolet rays, and we couldn't survive without it. Then there's ground level ozone, which can be harmful to our lungs. It is formed through a chemical reaction when nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) interact with sunlight. Emissions from power plants, industrial facilities, automobiles, gasoline vapors and solvents are all sources of NOx and VOCs. Natural sources, such as plant life and fires, also contribute to the formation of ozone.

The current national standard for ozone is 75 parts per billion (ppb), which is 33 percent lower than it was in 1980. Most of the country is meeting this standard, but there are still dense population centers like Houston and Southern California that do not meet the current standard.

Based on 40-year-old provisions in the Clean Air Act, EPA evaluates the standard every five years. In December they proposed lowering the standard to somewhere between 65-70 ppb, but EPA is taking comments on a standard as low as 60 ppb.

So what's the problem with a lower standard? Well, if an area cannot meet the standard, EPA will classify it as "non-attainment." Depending upon how long this goes on, it can impact many things including federal highway funds, and the ability of existing industry to expand and new industry to obtain permits.

And therein lies the problem. Studies show the need for a lower standard, but at what cost? EPA believes a lower standard will save the economy $15 billion per year, while a study funded by the National Association of Manufacturers says that cost could be as high as $270 billion per year to the economy.

The graphic above illustrates the potential non-attainment areas if EPA were to lower the national ozone standard to a maximum of 60 ppb. That's a lot of areas where economic growth would be stifled.

We all want better air quality, but we need it without severely impacting the economy. Since ozone concentrations are already down 33 percent from 1980, it seems best to encourage EPA to keep the downward trend going without threatening the economy by keeping the new standard reasonable.