In the House, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has introduced legislation stalling the rule based on some hometown concerns—his district is in California's Central Valley, where topography and economic growth have made it a hotbed for ozone. An aide for the majority leader said he was considering legislation, but the specifics would depend on the EPA proposal.
Why are environmentalists so protective of the standard?
Ozone, a component of smog, has been linked to asthma, respiratory damage, and a host of other health impacts, as well as being a contributor to climate change. EPA's own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which reviews current literature on pollutants, said the current standard of 75 ppb was insufficient to protect public health and that 60 ppb was the threshold at which vulnerable groups would see protection.
That's also the level at which public-health groups would like to see the conversation begin in order to maximize benefits to the public. The American Lung Association estimates that 45 percent of the people in the U.S. live in areas with unhealthful ozone levels.
"A new standard is not only long overdue, but publicly needed," said Janice Nolen of the ALA in a press call with reporters. "We are protecting public health. That's the goal."
Gina McCarthy's CNN editorial said the revised standard would avert nearly a million asthma attacks, thousands of cases of acute bronchitis, and up to 1 million missed school days and 180,000 missed work days by reducing pollution-related symptoms.
And since smog is formed by hot weather, global warming has meant that the most polluted areas are seeing more smog days (an EPA scientific assessment released in February 2013 also linked ozone and climate change).
A more stringent standard would be an especially big prize because of its rocky history. EPA is required to review the ozone standard and other "criteria pollutants" every five years, but the timeline on ozone has slipped. In Obama's first term, EPA proposed lowering the standard to 70 ppb, but the White House pulled the plug in September 2011. And even though the administration insisted it wasn't a political decision, environmental groups believe the proximity to the 2012 midterms prompted the decision. Green groups sued, prompting a Dec. 1 deadline for this proposal, with finalization required by October 2015.
Given that the decision came just a few years after a George W. Bush administration EPA review set the standard at 75 ppb, which they said at the time was too weak to protect the public, the reversal stung. The good news this time, they say, is that the rule fits with the rest of Obama's climate agenda and they'd expect it to move forward even on the tighter end.
"For a decade now, we've known it's insufficient," said Terry McGuire of the Sierra Club. "For us, this is about people having the right to know if their air is clean or not. And the administration is emboldened to do that."