EPA's Woodstove Whisperer

Over the past five years, Janet McCabe has played a leading role in updating EPA's air standards for woodstoves and heaters in accordance with the Clean Air Act.

This illustration can only be used with the Molly Mirhashem piece that originally ran in the 2/28/2015 issue of National Journal magazine. (National Journal)

The Decision

(Nigel Buchanan)Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Air and Radiation, oversees a staff that develops regulations and voluntary initiatives to reduce air pollution. Over the past five years, she has played a leading role in updating EPA's air standards for woodstoves and heaters in accordance with the Clean Air Act. The new regulations were finalized this month—the first time the standards have been revised since 1988.

The Stakes

Woodstoves are widely used to heat homes in many areas of the country, and the smoke and soot they produce can dramatically increase air pollution. "A number of states were very interested" in the rule, McCabe told me. "They have high air pollution that these devices had contributed to in a large way." However, some lawmakers expressed concern that the new regulations would increase costs for families who depend on woodstoves to heat their homes.

The Players

The issue piqued the interest of several different groups. Some woodstove manufacturers were already producing devices more advanced than the 1988 standards required, but for many companies, newer standards could necessitate changes to products that would greatly increase their expenses. Citizens and community groups in affected states weighed in on the new standards; some were concerned that the smoke from woodstoves affected their health, while others echoed lawmakers' worries about higher energy costs.

The Highest Hurdle

McCabe says the process of updating the standards was especially complicated because of how many different parties were interested in the result. "We wanted to make sure we were making the best decision and setting an appropriately effective standard," McCabe explains. All told, according to McCabe, EPA received about 8,000 public comments on the rule.

The Result

The new standards will be phased in over the next five years. Emissions from new wood heaters and stoves will be reduced by about two-thirds. (EPA cannot regulate appliances that have already been manufactured.) The agency says these regulations will improve air quality and reduce health care costs. And McCabe says she's satisfied with how the standards turned out. "We now have a rule in place that will mean [woodstoves and heaters] are considerably cleaner and will emit far less pollution," she told me. "We are moving the industry in a cleaner direction."