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People Like to Breathe: The Importance of EPA’s New Air Particulate Proposal

Last week, while America’s attention was focused on Kevin McCarthy’s 15-ring congressional circus, EPA was quietly advancing the quest for clean air. Air pollution control is a great American success story, but there is more work that must be done. According to EPA:

“Since 1970, implementation of the Clean Air Act and technological advances from American innovators have dramatically improved air quality in the U.S. Since that time, the combined emissions of criteria and precursor pollutants have dropped by 78%.”

One area of air pollution that continues to cause great harm is small or “fine” particulate pollution. In 2012, EPA set standards for these pollutants, and last week the agency proposed a set of more stringent standards. As Coral Davenport reported in the New York Times:

“Fine particulate matter comes from smokestacks, construction, trucks, power plants and other industrial activity. It has a diameter of no more than 2.5 micrometers, one-thirtieth the width of a human hair, and can become embedded in the lungs. It is linked to heart attacks, stroke and respiratory ailments. The draft rule by the Environmental Protection Agency would tighten the current limit, which has been in place since 2012, by as much as 25 percent. The administration estimates that it could prevent as many as 4,200 premature deaths annually, as well as 270,000 missed workdays per year, and result in up to $43 billion in net health and economic benefits by 2032.”

Air pollution control has long been able to demonstrate benefits that wildly outpace costs. Typically, every dollar invested in air pollution results in $15 of benefits. This is largely due to the huge health impacts of air pollution. Air pollution control has been achieved while the nation’s GDP has grown dramatically. The data graphically demonstrates that we do not need to trade off environmental protection for economic growth. In fact, environmental protection can stimulate economic growth. The principal causes of air pollution are power plants and motor vehicles, and while most key pollutants have fallen by nearly 80% over the past half-century, our economy has grown dramatically during that time. There are many more motor vehicles and power plants in 2023 than there were when the Clean Air Act was enacted in 1970. The reason the air is cleaner is that pollution rules have generated innovative technologies such as stack scrubbers and catalytic converters. Nevertheless, as Coral Davenport’s Times piece indicates, business lobbyists such as the Chamber of Commerce always see regulation as a problem for businesses. The reality is that pollution and public health rules lead to technological creativity and new business opportunities. Yes, some businesses will be unable or unwilling to adapt, but others will develop electric vehicles, solar cells, and batteries, and they will manage to make lots of money while reducing pollution.

The other critique of the rule comes from environmentalists who believe the rule does not go far enough. In a recent piece in Bloomberg Law, Jennifer Hijazi reported that:

“Environmental and public health advocates have been urging the agency for years to lower soot levels beyond 12 micrograms per cubic meter, but groups balked at what they say is a proposal that only inches towards a fully protective health standard. The EPA should adopt “safer” levels “to help reduce longstanding health disparities,” Natural Resources Defense Council senior climate and health scientist Vijay Limaye said in a statement. “EPA also needs to strengthen and expand air quality monitoring to better quantify these harms nationwide.” The new level “falls short” of the “powerful scientific evidence that supports a substantial strengthening of soot standards,” according to Earthjustice. “This delayed proposed rule on soot is a disappointment and missed opportunity overall,” Seth Johnson, an Earthjustice attorney, said.”

The history of most emission and effluent regulation involves a gradual tightening of standards as research documenting negative health impacts is accepted via peer review. But the process of modifying standards is nearly always slower than advocates and experts would like to see. In this case, EPA’s rule is not yet final, and the proposal may well be modified before it goes into effect. It’s not unusual for EPA to find itself criticized by businesses for moving too fast and advocates for moving too slow. Particulate pollution has been found to have a greater impact in poor neighborhoods that adjoin highways or are close to factories, giving an environmental justice dimension to this new rule as well.

The fact that it has taken the Biden administration two years to propose this new rule is instructive. The top priority of EPA Administrator Michael Regan was to rebuild organizational capacity, end the scientific brain drain, and reverse the most destructive policy pronouncements of the Trump era. This new rule is an indication that the damage control process may be coming to an end and that the normal decision-making process can be resumed. The rule being modified has not been revised in over a decade, even though EPA scientists advocated tightening it back in 2020. Back then, Andrew Wheeler, the Trump-appointed EPA administrator, was not interested in changing the rule, even though it was due for reexamination in light of research conducted over the previous decade.

At least Wheeler did not rescind the Obama-era particulate rule and left a once-reasonable standard in place. In many other areas of environmental regulation, the old standards were gutted and for the most part, polluters feared “blue” state and some local enforcement far more than federal action. EPA’s rulemaking on particulates was probably a lower internal priority when compared to areas where federal rules were eliminated under Trump. All of this is to try to understand why it took two years to propose a rule that could have been proposed in 2020. My hope is that this represents a return to a normal pace of EPA rulemaking. This is important because with a House of Representatives now controlled by the radical right wing of the Republican party, a court system loaded with Trump era-judges, and a bevy of Republican attorneys general eager to do combat with those “evil” federal regulators, it is crucial that during the next two years, EPA’s rulemaking machine is operating at full capacity.

It is a little ironic that I am advocating for resumed EPA rulemaking since I typically criticize the federal government’s over-reliance on command-and-control regulation. I am usually concerned that the command often lacks sufficient authority to compel action, and the control can be misguided due to regulator ignorance of business practice. Nevertheless, under-regulation and an absence of standards and enforcement give you the air quality in China and the water pollution in India. Here in the United States, we need strong standards enforced carefully and precisely to deal with the situation at hand and a deep understanding of the pace of operational change that is feasible for a particular business or locality. U.S. regulators are quite good at negotiating reasonable compliance schedules that provide businesses with the opportunity to gradually adjust to the new standards. The implementation of environmental rules is typically delegated from the federal government to state governments who are fully aware of local constraints and conditions.

But if the rules have no credibility because regulated parties know that the federal government is anti-regulation or that the rules are weak and outdated, then they tend to be ignored. It’s like e-bike compliance with traffic lights in New York City. The bikers know that traffic rules are never enforced on them, and they ignore those rules with impunity. The rules must be meaningful, appropriate, and enforced. Which brings me back to EPA’s new proposed particulate rules: the scientific basis for more stringent standards is clear, and if carefully explained to the public, the rules will be supported. That’s because people like to breathe. We’ve sort of gotten used to it.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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