The Ozone Charade

Susan Dudley
by Susan E. Dudley, Director
October 28, 2015

The Environmental Protection Agency published its final national ambient air quality standard (NAAQS) for ozone in the Federal Register on Monday.  EPA emphasizes that “Setting air quality standards is about protecting public health and the environment. By law, EPA cannot consider costs in doing that.”  The agency did prepare a regulatory impact analysis (RIA) to comply with presidential executive orders 12866 and 13563, but it is explicit that “although an RIA has been prepared, the results of the RIA have not been considered in issuing this final rule.”

The results of the RIA, however, were featured prominently in EPA’s press release.  According to the release, “The public health benefits of the updated standards, estimated at $2.9 to $5.9 billion annually in 2025, outweigh the estimated annual costs of $1.4 billion.”  EPA’s fact sheet relies on the RIA to assert that meeting the new 70 parts per billion (ppb) standard will avoid 320 to 660 premature deaths each year. 

Nonetheless, the 480-page RIA suggests that these health benefits pale in comparison to the benefits that achieving a more stringent 65 ppb standard would bring.  According to EPA’s models, a standard of 65 ppb would avoid between 1,590 and 3,320 premature deaths. (This does not include California.)

There are ample reasons to question EPA’s ozone health benefit estimates but the fact is, the agency’s own analysis claims that the more stringent 65 ppb standard would have saved an additional 1,274 to 2,660 lives per year, and avoided an additional 2,670 emergency room visits and almost 1,300 hospital admissions.

If, as EPA says, “the Act requires [it] to base the decision for the primary standard on health considerations only; economic factors cannot be considered,” how can it reconcile setting a standard that leaves so many lives unprotected? 

EPA cannot openly admit that its decision was influenced by the enormous costs of achieving the tighter standard.  (Chapter 4 of the RIA acknowledges that no known measures are available to achieve either of the standards EPA considered, but estimates that a 65 ppb standard would impose costs of $16 billion per year – more than 10 times the estimated $1.4 billion per year cost of achieving a 70 ppb standard.)

As I argue in a recent working paper, this illustrates the scientization of policy, where important policy factors are cloaked in scientific-sounding justifications and hidden from public debate.    

No one can seriously believe the Administration’s final ozone rule was not influenced by economic tradeoffs or the intense pressure it faced from two opposing forces.  On one side was its environmental base, urging a tighter standard as penance for the President’s 2011 decision to delay issuing the rule.  On the other were businesses and communities concerned about the rule’s enormous economic impacts, who argued against any change to the previously-established 75 ppb standard. 

It’s time to stop the charade that it is wise or even possible to base NAAQS purely on health considerations.  There are very real tradeoffs involved in these policy decisions that deserve open and transparent debate, rather than the pretense that they can be made by considering only science.


See also:

Commentary: EPA's Ozone Rule and the Scientization of Policy, by Susan E. Dudley

Working paper: Regulatory Science and Policy: A Case Study of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, by Susan E. Dudley

Commentary: Does Reducing Ozone Really Improve Human Health?, by Louis Anthony (Tony) Cox, Jr.

Public Comment: National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone, by Louis Anthony (Tony) Cox, Jr.

Fed Soc Blog, EPA and Ozone: Policy Hiding Behind “Science”?, by Susan E. Dudley, October 14, 2015

Reuters, Why 'science' alone isn't enough for setting environmental policy, by Susan Dudley, October 2, 2015

Bloomberg BNA, Government Science Misused to Guide Policy, citing and quoting Susan Dudley, September 10, 2015