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Is the EPA regulating ozone after all?

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Remember in early September, when there was that big uproar over the fact that the White House was scrapping standards for ground-level ozone pollution (or smog)? That raised a question: What happens next? After all, the last time the ozone standard was updated was back in 1997, when it was set at 84 parts per billion. The Bush administration tried to lower the legal limit to 75 parts per billion, but that rule was attacked in court and dubbed “legally indefensible” by current EPA head Lisa Jackson. So does the agency go back to the Bush rule or leave the 1997 standard in place?

David McNew

Getty

Turns out, the EPA is going with those “legally indefensible” rules. Gina McCarthy, the agency’s top air-quality official, has issued a memo telling state and local regulators that the EPA is moving forward with the Bush-era ozone standard, albeit cautiously, to “reduce uncertainty and minimize the regulatory burdens on state and local governments.” Keep in mind that the rule that got scotched by the Obama White House would’ve set the standard at 70 parts per billion. So, in practice, we’re talking about a difference of 5 parts per billion (which, to be sure, many public-health experts deem significant).

But wait, won’t this Bush rule still cost money? Remember, the ozone standard that just got scrapped would’ve cost industry between $11 billion and $31 billion per year. White House chief of staff William Daley was reportedly nervous about the impact that it could have on industries in swing states. Yet the Bush rule is estimated to cost about $8 billion per year. Shouldn’t the White House also be dreading that (assuming, of course, that this rule doesn’t get thrown out in court)?

Perhaps, but two caveats. For one, EPA appears to be going slow with the new ozone rule, per McCarthy’s memo. And second, as the Center for Public Integrity’s Corbin Hiar reports, there isn’t necessarily a tight overlap between swing districts in the 2012 election and districts likely to be in non-attainment of the ozone rule: “There were some districts in the swing state of Florida that could have run afoul of the tighter standards. But the proposed standard also would have forced changes in many Massachusetts congressional districts where Obama has strong political support.”

Here’s a fuller map of counties likely to be affected by the Bush-era ozone rules.

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