Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Obama shelves tighter smog standards, what does this mean for Southern California?

When President Obama ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to halt a proposal to tighten smog standards, his decision sent shockwaves through Southern California. Obama said in a statement, "I have continued to underscore the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover.” Southern California already has much experience in finding a path toward cleaner air and a growing economy.

So what does keeping the current smog rules mean for greater Los Angeles? Air quality levels are already the worst in the nation; certainly, they will not improve. Ozone, aka smog, is caused when emissions from vehicles, power plants and more mix with sunlight. It causes wheezing, asthma attacks, soughing, and sometimes death. Southern California has these ingredients in abundance.

In the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” report for 2011, Los Angeles County receives failing marks all around. Its grade for the amount of high ozone days is an “F”.  Los Angeles County also gets a “Fail” for annual particle pollution levels, which refers to a mix of very tiny solid and liquid particles that are in the air we breathe. Riverside County and San Bernardino County receive the same marks as Los Angeles. Ventura County fares a little better relatively, with an “F” for high ozone levels, and a “Pass” for annual particle pollution. The same ALA rankings hold for Orange County.

Beyond that, the Los Angeles region still has the highest levels of ozone nationwide. The Los Angeles Times, in reporting on "State of the Air," revealed that our region violated federal health standards an average of 137 days a year. 

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, southern California's air regulatory agency, has a page on its website devoted to ozone trends since 1976. It's a little confusing, but it lists all the different standards under which southern California air is hard to breathe.

AQMD officials have long backed the EPA and Administrator Lisa Jackson's efforts towards tightening up the smog rule. Last year, AQMD's Sam Atwood said, "The current ozone health standard is not protective enough of the health of the 16 million Southern Californians and that is particularly true for residents who have lung disease, asthma, heart disease, or are elderly or very young."

As for the economic impact of the regulation: emissions reductions under the proposed ozone standard were projected to cost between $19 and $90 billion a year. These are costs incurred not only by businesses but by government, local and federal agencies. At the same time, health care analysts have guessed that the proposed standard would have saved $13 to $100 billion in health care costs. A 2009 study from the Institute for Economic and Environmental Studies at Cal State Fullerton calculated a $22 billion savings just from meeting current ozone standards.  

Lastly, don't forget climate change. On top of all of that, a warming atmosphere will make these matters worse. A new report ranks states in terms of projected worsening ozone pollution due to climate change. When temperatures rise, ground ozone levels increase. At the top of the list, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists? “California likely would suffer the most of any state from worsening ozone pollution from climate change temperature increases by the end of the decade, according to a peer-reviewed report released today.”

(Molly Peterson contributed reporting to this post.)

Image: 4x4jeepchick/Flickr