Next on the chopping block: Tightened restrictions on smog

Bill that weakens EPA smog regulations now heads to Senate.

Utahns converge on the State Capitol in Salt Lake City to protest the state’s air quality in the winter. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Utahns converge on the State Capitol in Salt Lake City to protest the state’s air quality in the winter. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill late Tuesday to delay implementation of an Obama administration rule on ground-level ozone pollution. Environmental groups say the bill will weaken the Clean Air Act, including switching the Environmental Protection Agency’s mandated review of ozone from every five years to every 10.

The Obama-era regulation lowered the allowable concentration of ozone to 70 parts per billion, from the previous 75. Opponents of the stricter standard argue that puts an undue economic burden on industry and the House followed suit: voting 229–199 to pass H.R. 806, introduced by Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), which would delay enforcement of the stronger smog protection until 2025.

Ozone is the main ingredient in smog and is created when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds — both of which can come from car exhaust and power plants — interact with sunlight. Breathing in ozone can contribute to a range of health impacts, including a decrease in lung function and an increase in respiratory symptoms.

The EPA is required to review the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone standards every five years and revise them if necessary to protect public health. States are subsequently required to develop plans to achieve and maintain compliance with the revised standards.

Democrats and environmental groups decried the bill, saying it would cost lives through increased rates of asthma and lung disease while threatening decades of progress in cleaning up the environment.

Delaying enforcement “would mean years during which we would have 230,000 extra childhood asthma attacks every year, along with higher levels of other serious lung diseases and premature deaths,” EDF Action President Elizabeth Thompson said in statement. EDF Action is the advocacy arm of the Environmental Defense Fund.

A growing body of scientific studies show air pollution is dangerous even at lower levels than those considered in this legislation. More than a dozen major health organizations opposed the bill, including the National Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association.

“We need more protection [from] air pollution,” Thompson said. “Instead, Rep. Pete Olson of Texas and the other House Members who voted for this bill want to block the protections we already established.”

A similar bill passed the House in 2016 that also would have undermined the updated smog pollution standard put in place by the Obama administration in 2015. “The measure passed once before and then died in the Senate. Let’s hope our senators recognize its dangers and grant it the same fate now,” Thompson said.

Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Joe Manchin (D-WV), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) introduced similar legislation in the Senate. Four Democrats voted for the House bill: Reps. Sanford Bishop (GA), Jim Costa (CA), Henry Cuellar (TX), and Collin Peterson (MN).

Last month, the Trump administration’s EPA alerted the nation’s governors that it is giving states an additional year to develop air quality plans that will comply with agency’s 2015 ground-level ozone standard. The one-year extension also will provide the EPA an opportunity to look at ways to make it easier for states to meet the ozone standards, the agency said.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said he will establish an Ozone Cooperative Compliance Task Force that will try to find ways for states to comply with the ozone standard with less hardship. “The agency is taking time to better understand some lingering, complicated issues so that air attainment decisions can be based on the latest and greatest information,” the EPA said.

Climate activists also see a connection between a warming planet and smog. Studies have shown that smog could worsen in the coming decades as climate change boosts summer temperatures and makes ozone levels more difficult to control.

Terry McGuire, senior legislative representative with Earthjustice, noted it is important to see the connections between climate change and ozone, which is itself a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. “If the models bear out and we have more hot days in the future, then we’re going to have longer ozone seasons in a lot of parts of the country,” McGuire told ThinkProgress.

A week after they helped to kill an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have prevented the Department of Defense from analyzing and addressing climate change, 17 Republican members of the House Climate Solutions Caucus voted for Olson’s bill.

Utahns converged on the State Capitol to protest the state’s air quality. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Utahns converged on the State Capitol to protest the state’s air quality. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Environmental groups have been keeping an eye on how the Republican members of the climate caucus vote on bills that impact not only the climate but environmental and human health. The Republican members who voted for Olson’s bill included Reps. Darrell Issa (CA), widely viewed as a climate science denier, and Mia Love (UT), who represents a state where smog blankets its urban valleys in the winter.

The seven Republican members of the climate caucus who voted against the bill were caucus co-founder Rep. Carlos Curbelo (FL) and Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA), Elise Stefanik (NY), Brian Mast (FL), Dave Reichert (WA), and John Faso (NY).

In a Tuesday statement, Mary Anne Hitt, director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, accused the majority of House members who voted for Olson’s bill of voting “to surrender clean air to the fossil fuel industry.”

In addition to threatening federal protections against smog pollution, the bill also would reduce protections from carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and toxic lead pollution, pollutants linked to a range of health serious problems including heart attacks, strokes, and asthma attacks, the Sierra Club said.