Scientists Stumble Into Ozone Combat Zone

The prospect of a new antismog rule has opponents taking aim at an EPA advisory committee.

LOS ANGELES, CA, USA - 21JUL08 - An ariel view of Hollywood with downtown Los Angeles in the background, as seen from the slopes of Mount Hollywood. Pollution and smog cloud the view.  (Christian Science Monitor/Getty)

This is supposed to be the boring part.

A group of scientists pores over binders of health studies and environmental reports before making a very preliminary recommendation to the Environmental Protection Agency on how EPA should craft a new antismog rule. The group has no enforcement authority — it only issues nonbinding suggestions — so the scientists typically do their work in an environment devoid of the political vitriol that engulfs later stages of the rule-making process.

This time, however, the lab coats are operating under fire.

When EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee met in March to prepare a recommendation on the agency's next rule on ozone pollution, it did so amid a barrage of criticism from congressional Republicans, who say the group is too opaque — and too tinged with green bias — for its recommendations to be trusted.

House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith echoed a slew of GOP attacks in a letter to Administrator Gina McCarthy, in which he accused EPA of relying on "secret science" and charged that the panel's members were too closely tied to the agency, "undercutting independent scientific review."

Whether the critiques are valid or not, the fact that Republicans and industry groups are fighting President Obama's new ozone regulation in its most nascent stages demonstrates the high stakes over the sweeping air-pollution rule — and just how bitter the fight is about to become.

The rule would lower the bar for the permissible level of ozone pollution, a component of smog that is linked to asthma, chest pain, and respiratory damage. Under the Clean Air Act, if a state is found to have ozone levels above the allowable threshold, it is subject to expensive pollution-control procedures, including restrictions on business and transportation plans.

Opponents say the new threshold would be the most expensive regulation ever to come out of EPA — the agency projected that a previous attempt to tighten the standard would have cost between $19 billion and $90 billion — and they are looking at every avenue for smothering the rule before it starts.

And if the coalition can't stop it, it has plenty to gain by delaying it.

EPA's previous attempt to lower the ozone standard was snuffed out by the White House in September 2011. At the time, administration officials said the decision to kill the proposal — which would have lowered the ozone standards from 75 parts per billion to 70 ppb — had nothing to do with politics. But environmental groups continue to believe otherwise, and sources inside the administration said the decision came without input from EPA. When the president squashed the plan, it drove a wedge between Obama and then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, for whom the rule was a top priority.

Now, EPA is considering lowering the threshold to below 70 ppb, and environmentalists fear that their reading of history will repeat itself: The stop-and-start nature of federal rule-making means the regulation could be front-page news during the 2014 or 2016 election cycles, creating a political dilemma for the White House.

Hoping to keep the clock ticking on their terms, the Sierra Club and other green groups have sued EPA to force it to set a legally binding schedule that would have the agency issuing a preliminary ozone proposal by December and finalizing a rule by October 2015. EPA has said final action won't come until at least Nov. 15, 2015.

The administration's decision to blink the first time around has fueled hopes among the rule's opponents that Obama will nix the new plan. And so they're starting the attack early — hoping both to raise the rule's profile and to increase the amount of political pain the administration would suffer for enacting it.

"There is no bigger air regulation across the country than ozone," said one former Republican aide, noting that opposing the rule could pay political dividends for savvy legislators. "For lawmakers who have been around, they see the writing on the wall," the former aide said.

The American Petroleum Institute is also well ahead on its messaging, releasing a study last May warning that tightening ozone limits to 60 ppb — a level sought by environmentalists but unlikely to be set by EPA — would put 97 percent of U.S. counties in violation of the rule, effectively putting most of the country under pollution reduction plans.

Frank O'Donnell, the president of Clean Air Watch, said this is the most activity he's seen on a science review since 1997, when industry groups banded together to bash an ozone-standard review.

"This may be the most coordinated dirty-air campaign I've seen since then," O'Donnell said. "The [science commission] meeting has become a peg for a lot of activity that was stirred up by the corporate groups that would like to nip this thing in the bud."

Environmental groups, however, believe the science supports a new, tighter standard, and that this will be enough to bring Obama around to their side.

So — under the spotlight's full glare — what did the scientists decide? For the moment, nothing. Their March meeting concluded without a recommendation, but the group's work continues, and it has homed in generally on a limit of 70 ppb or less.

The scientists are scheduled to make a public recommendation in May, and when they do, green advocates, industry insiders, Hill warriors, and the White House will all be watching.