This week the Obama administration’s EPA postponed a final decision on whether or not to further reduce the nation’s ambient air ozone standard. It was the fourth such postponement of a choice that is sure to have significant political and economic ramifications, if it is ever made. Further lowering the ozone standard would almost surely have a significant negative effect on the nation’s already beleaguered manufacturing sector, while leaving the standard where it is would further annoy the president’s leftist base. And so, once again, the EPA is going to delay the decision for further study, though this is surely an issue that has been studied to death.
There is little doubt among those of us who do environmental regulatory work for a living that Obama’s EPA will lower the standard eventually. It’s a very important goal among the green portions of the left, having slammed George W. Bush repeatedly for not acceding to their demands. Though it would have been politically inexpedient for Obama’s EPA to take action now – because it would be the height of folly to pile on another job-killing measure in this miserable economic climate – it’s hard to believe that the Obama administration would walk away from the issue for all time.
The stakes are high, and so of course is the rhetoric, which means that both the science and risk-benefit evaluation that should go with such a decision get lost in the fog of recriminations and name-calling. That’s a shame, but it’s emblematic of how politicized environmental issues have become in the nation today. Allow me to offer the kind of explanation that the mainstream media won’t, or can’t, provide.
The ambient air ozone standard refers to the amount of that chemical – a molecule consisting of three oxygen atoms, rather than the standard two – is in the air we breathe. At ground level, ozone is generally considered “bad,” whereas high up in the atmosphere, where it protects us from ultraviolet light, it is considered “good.” (Amusingly, some home air purifying systems generate ozone, which manufacturers claim is the solution to all your indoor air pollution woes.)
Ozone, we have been told, is linked to asthma and other respiratory diseases, and so we must set the standard lower in order to reduce the incidences of such illnesses. It’s a story that has grown a little tiresome on this, its fourth re-telling. The original ozone standard under the Clean Air Act was one hundred twenty parts per billion. The Clinton-era EPA lowered that to eighty parts per billion and the Bush-era EPA lowered it further to seventy five parts per billion. (Averaging periods enter into the scheme too, but suffice it to say that each iteration represented a more stringent standard.)
Even though the Bush-era EPA promulgated a tighter standard than the Clinton-era EPA, the Bush standard was condemned by the environmental-advocacy industry (i.e., the Sierra Club, American Lung Association, etc.) because George W. Bush was elected as a Republican and the leftist narrative insists that Republicans can do nothing right when it comes to Mother Earth, while Democrats like Bill Clinton can do nothing wrong.
The party line among the folks who make their money by convincing innocent Americans that they are being slowly poisoned by evil, money-grubbing corporations was that the Bush-era EPA “ignored scientific advice” in lowering the standard to seventy-five parts per billion, rather than to seventy, or even sixty, parts per billion. Seventy, or even sixty, parts per billion are demonstrably lower than seventy-five and, therefore, better, or so the narrative goes. So is fifty, or even forty, parts per billion, but why the enviros didn’t demand those numbers (or how about zero?) was never explained.
But then, saying that the Bush-era EPA “ignored scientific advice” is rather misleading. The Bush administration ignored the advice of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, a seven-member panel that is supposed to advise the EPA on air quality matters, not make decisions on behalf of the agency. It is dominated by academic sorts who have spent the better part of their professional careers studying just how bad the tiniest bit of anything can be for you. Given the choice between a small number and smaller number, the fact that they chose the latter is about as surprising as the local fire marshal telling you to install more sprinklers and fire extinguishers in your building. You can never be too safe, right?
Except that there is an economic and societal price to pay every time you move the clean air goal posts a little further back. The environmental industry will never admit that of course, and the EPA’s current party line is that environmental regulations are actually profitable. The greater part of that math involves assigning dollar values to human lives, claiming that each and every new regulation saves “x” number of lives and then multiplying the two data points to determine the “profit.” It’s rather silly and, if it were true, Americans should be immortal by now, but that’s EPA administrator Lisa Jackson’s story and she’s sticking to it.
Do we need yet another reduction in the ozone standard? Consider this: EPA data shows that concentrations of all pollutants – including ozone – in the ambient air have been dramatically reduced since the Clean Air Act was first promulgated in 1970. In that time, incidents of asthma have increased by about fifty per cent.
You’ll never hear the Sierra Club, ALA or any of the rest even admit that air quality in America has improved so, much less that the linkage between ozone and asthma doesn’t show up on the macroscopic level. That would surely hurt their bottom line, because their economic well-being depends on keeping their donors well and truly frightened. If you think that sounds like something of a protection racket, you wouldn’t be far off the mark.