Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Will EPA Rely on Political Science for Fine Particle Pollution Decision?

Perhaps it depends on what the definition of “science” is: As you may recall, the countdown has begun for perhaps the single most important decision to be made by EPA Administrator Steve Johnson – the updating of the national air quality standards for fine particle pollution, standards last updated in 1997. These standards – which are supposed to be based strictly on health science – will shape the course of specific pollution cleanup programs for the next 10-15 years or more. (Tougher new standards could lead to tougher controls on coal-fired power plants, diesel engines, etc.)

Johnson is under a court order to propose a decision by December 20. And the science is overwhelming that EPA should make the standards tougher to better protect people’s health.

But hints are starting to trickle out that the decision could be based on political science rather than actual science. (I know this comes as shocking news to those of you who recall that last week, Johnson basically said EPA would stop enforcing the Clean Air Act against coal-fired power plants – an action the EPA described as “clearer and simpler.” For the polluters, you bet!)

A case in point: sources tell us that an EPA advisory committee meeting this week in San Diego , an EPA staffer noted that the agency could issue what, on paper, would be a tougher standard, but one that might not require any additional cleanup anywhere in America. (For those of you more detail-oriented, please see below*).

We hope Johnson will think twice before coming forward with such an ill-advised approach. It would create the appearance that he’s more concerned with political science than real science.

Global warming pollution car standards could save people money! A most interesting analysis out this week by the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management on the topic of global warming pollution standards for motor vehicles – the source of about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the Northeast. The analysis demonstrates that substantial reductions in greenhouse gas pollution from motor vehicles will be achieved in the Northeast by adoption of the California motor vehicle greenhouse gas standards. In addition, a cost benefit analysis shows that these reductions can be achieved at a cost savings to consumers of approximately $155 a year for near term technology vehicles and $176 for mid term technology vehicles with gasoline at an average cost of $2.20 per gallon. Sustained higher gasoline prices will provide an even greater savings to consumers. Please let me know if you want the full analysis.

And speaking of gas prices… Many people watching yesterday’s hearing on refineries by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee probably laughed at the repeated attempts by Senators James Inhofe (R-OK) and George Voinovich (R-OH) to distance themselves from the controversial House-passed energy bill. That bill was championed by Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) with a helpful series of armtwists by indicted Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX).

Even so, Inhofe & Co. are apparently forging ahead with plans next week to mark up legislation that would help the oil industry. Talk about bad timing! Oil companies will be starting to roll out third-quarter (including post-Katrina) profit figures next week. Oil analysts are already predicting a huge jump in profits. As analyst Fadel Gheit told Associated Press, “They are just printing money right now. They are making so many trips to the bank because they can’t take all the money there at one time.” We will be watching this closely.

*A little more detail on the fine particle pollution: the 1997 standards have two main components – an annual average standard of 15 micrograms per cubic meter, and a 24-hour average standard of 65. The 24-hour standard is generally acknowledged to be so weak as to be meaningless.

After an exhaustive review of the science, EPA’s career scientists recommended that the agency either set both tougher annual and 24-hour standards, or, if just changing the 24-hour standard, lower it to the “middle to lower” end of a range between 25 and 35. To me, middle to lower would mean 25 or perhaps as high as 30.

EPA has begun to examine what changing the standards might mean in the real world. As noted above, an agency staffer reported this week that the 24-hour standard could be lowered down to 35 without requiring any additional pollution reductions. (EPA projects that its “clean air interstate rule” would yield the same number of nonattainment areas whether the 24-hour standard is 65 or 35.) A standard of 30 or less would mean additional steps to reduce pollution.

Health and environmental groups, including Clean Air Watch, want the EPA to protect people’s health fully, and set the 24-hour standard at 25, with the annual standard lowered to 12. Anything higher will mean additional deaths from pollution, according to EPA’s own calculations.


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