Environment & Science

Smog rule may be next on Trump's chopping block

Tourists at the Griffith Observatory observation deck look out at the Los Angeles city skyline as heavy smog shrouds the city on May 31, 2015.
Tourists at the Griffith Observatory observation deck look out at the Los Angeles city skyline as heavy smog shrouds the city on May 31, 2015.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

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An Obama Administration smog standard may be the next federal environmental regulation on President Trump’s chopping block. Late last week, attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice said the Environmental Protection Agency was "reviewing" the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone issued by EPA in 2015. In the meantime, DOJ would not defend it in court.

The 2015 rule lowered ground-level ozone levels to 70 parts per billion from 75 ppb. Ozone, which is also known as smog, is formed when chemicals emitted by cars, trucks, industry and manufacturing combine with naturally-occurring sources and bake in the sunlight.

Urban Southern California has the worst ozone problem in the country, and the area has never met federal standards. Last year, air quality was unhealthy enough to exceed federal limits on 132 days – more than a third of the time. Some 2,000 Southern Californians die prematurely from breathing polluted air, and according to the American Thoracic Society, the region has the most to gain than anywhere else in the country by cleaning up the air. 

Air quality rules are controversial because they are difficult and costly to comply with. After the 2015 ozone rule was finalized, coal mining company Murray Energy sued EPA to block it. Energy-related trade groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce joined in, as did 10 states, including Oklahoma, where EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was Attorney General at the time.

In Southern California, many local chambers of commerce and economic development groups also opposed lowering the ozone standard to 70 ppb.

“Southern California has a very difficult time complying with current ozone regulations,” said Brad Jensen, the director of public policy at the San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership, which co-signed a 2015 letter to EPA urging the agency to keep the standard at 75 ppb. “Lowering it down would be very, very difficult for us to attain. Technologically, it’s a really big request.”

Oral arguments in Murray Energy vs. EPA were supposed to begin April 19, but in an April 7 court filing, Department of Justice attorneys representing EPA said they wanted to push that date back while EPA reviewed the ozone rule. The request, they wrote, “is appropriate because recently-appointed EPA officials in the new Administration will be closely scrutinizing the 2015 rule to determine whether the standards should be maintained, modified, or otherwise reconsidered."

“To me that was a signal, a big flashing red light, that they’re going to play with the ozone standard and make it easier to comply with,” said David Pettit, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who specializes in the Clean Air Act.

EPA didn’t respond to a request for comment, but spokesman J.P. Freire told The Washington Post: 

“Given the broad-reaching economic implications of the 2015 ozone standard, we are carefully reviewing the rule to determine whether it is in line with the pro-growth directives of this Administration…We simply request the court grant us additional time to ensure we can continue this thorough and deliberative process.”

President Trump has also signaled his intent to roll back environmental rules. He signed an executive order on March 28 that directed EPA to reconsider regulations that are costly and burdensome to domestic energy development, particularly fossil fuels.

"So many are unnecessary, and so many are job killing," Trump said about regulations at the signing ceremony for his executive order, "We're getting rid of the bad ones."

If weakening the 2015 ozone standard is Trump's goal, achieving it won’t be easy. Undoing a regulation can take as long as writing one, and environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council say they will challenge the effort in court.

“This isn’t like Trump can sign a piece of paper and all of a sudden it’s 80 ppb again,” Pettit said. “It’s essentially going to stretch out through this presidential term.”

In the meantime, the 2015 ozone standard of 70 ppb will remain in effect.

No matter what, California will likely keep ozone standards at 70 ppb or lower. The California Air Resources Board “believes the current standards are well-grounded in the science, consistent with the law, and critical to public health,” wrote spokesman Dave Clegern in a statement.

CARB also has the legal authority to set its own clean air standards.

In addition, a bill under consideration in the California Senate, SB 49, would direct the state to enforce all federal environmental regulations in effect before President Trump took office. If passed, it would apply to the 2015 ozone rule.

The EPA’s review of the ozone rule is the latest effort by the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress to roll back regulations meant to safeguard human health and the environment – and the latest example of California’s defiance.

Last month, President Trump announced he would take another look at vehicle fuel economy rules passed by the Obama administration -- rules California has vowed to uphold.

Trump also has directed EPA Administrator Pruitt to dismantle two Obama-era rules: the Clean Power Plan, which would have regulated carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, and the Waters of the United States rule, which clarified which kinds of wetlands, tributaries and creeks are under the jurisdiction of the federal Clean Water Act.

In addition, the U.S. Senate is currently weighing whether to use the Congressional Review Act to repeal an Obama-era regulation on methane emissions from oil and gas production on federal land. California, meanwhile, just passed its own, stricter methane rule.