After years of inaction, the Obama administration is expected to propose tougher limits on smog Wednesday, according to people with knowledge of the rule-making effort. The new rule would be a major victory for public health groups, but it is sure to further stoke the partisan clashes between the president and Republicans poised to take control of Congress.
The current limit for ground-level ozone, the lung-damaging gas in smog, is 75 parts per billion. Concluding that the limit is too weak to protect people's health, Environmental Protection Agency staff and its science advisors had recommended strengthening the federal standard to 60 to 70 parts per billion.
The proposal that the EPA will unveil Wednesday would offer its preferred option of 65 to 70 parts per billion, said the people familiar with the draft measure. The EPA would also seek public comment on the more stringent standard of 60 parts per billion, which environmentalists seek, and on the existing standard of 75, which businesses want. The EPA will issue a final rule in October.
A tighter limit on ground-level ozone could save lives and bring cleaner air to millions of people, including in Los Angeles and other parts of California. Proponents say that states will have ample time to meet the new benchmark and that technology could help close the gap.
"The standard today doesn't provide the protection to which the public is entitled," said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president with the American Lung Assn. "But they need to aim at the right target when making the reductions we need. They're breathing unhealthy air now in too many places."
But the oil industry, power companies and other industries, along with their mostly Republican allies in Congress, contend that a tighter ozone standard would damage the economy and send manufacturing jobs overseas. Even some nonpartisan experts such as former regulators worry that a deep cut to ozone implemented too fast could hammer local economies.
Republicans are weighing options that would thwart the rule. Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) maintains that the current standard is healthy and that a lower ozone limit could lead to job loss, carpooling and even the end of barbecues in Texas. He has introduced a bill to amend the landmark Clean Air Act to consider the effect of rules on jobs. A similar proposal is in the Senate.
The act prohibits the EPA from considering cost when establishing a limit for certain pollutants, such as ozone, and asserts the primacy of human health, a principle the Supreme Court has unanimously upheld. Instead, the agency factors in costs when looking at how states plan to implement its rules.
"The law as it stands now says [the EPA] can't look at jobs," Olson said, then pointed to a different kind of health risk. "But if you don't have jobs, you don't have healthcare, and that is a public health issue."
Republicans could also deprive the EPA of funding to put the change in place, or attack other rules whose secondary benefits include ozone reduction. But some opponents of the tighter ozone limit think the president would probably veto such bills.
"It may be one of those things that takes a change in administration," said Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Texas). Speaking in the wake of aggressive action Obama has taken since the midterm election on other issues such as climate change and immigration, Burgess said, "The president is determined to go his own way."
Ozone is created when unstable gases are released during combustion, whether at power plants, factories or in vehicle engines. The pollutants react with sunlight to create ozone, which can trigger asthma attacks, worsen heart and lung disease and lead to premature deaths.
Because so many sources emit those ozone components, the effect of an ozone standard is far-reaching, which has made politicians leery of regulating it. The Bush administration rejected EPA science advisors' recommendation six years ago for a tougher limit. The Obama administration vowed to implement a tighter standard, but the president shelved it and let the Bush-era limit remain at the start of his reelection bid.
Pollution advisories classify the air in many regions as healthy when it is not, backers of a new standard say.
The standard "is going to be based on the science, and we will take close consideration of what scientists have told us," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said last week.
Most areas of California that are likely to fall out of compliance under a more stringent ozone standard are rural and lightly populated. But if the EPA opts for a stricter rule, it could affect places like Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, where the air has long been considered relatively clean.
In urban California, where vehicle emissions dominate, achieving the deep pollution cuts needed to meet a stricter smog standard will require a full-scale transformation of the transportation sector, regulators say, including significant advances in alternative-fuel cars and trucks and cleaner ships, trains and construction equipment.
"We are trying to come up with advanced technologies, get dirty vehicles out of the fleet and get new, near-zero vehicles into the fleet," said Sylvia Vanderspek, chief of the California Air Resources Board's air quality planning branch.
Of the 715 counties nationwide with EPA-certified air quality monitoring equipment, 185 do not meet the existing ozone standard, agency records show. That total would more than double if a stricter limit of 70 parts per billion were in effect today, a Times review of the agency's most recent air quality data found.
The EPA denied a Freedom of Information Act request by The Times seeking a list of the counties nationwide projected to violate a revised ozone standard, citing an exemption that protects information used in deliberations around rule-making.
A review of available data shows that small and mid-size cities and some rural areas across much of the country would run afoul of the new limit. Among the cities that would violate a standard of 70 parts per billion if it were in effect today are Albuquerque; Winston-Salem, N.C.; El Paso; and Chattanooga, Tenn., the EPA's data show.
In Colorado, for instance, a tighter ozone standard probably would put Colorado Springs, the state's second-largest city, out of compliance. That would force regulators to come up with a plan to reduce smog-generating pollution, either through additional controls on industrial sources or more stringent vehicle emissions testing.
"Beyond that, I'm not sure what else we could do to tighten things up," said Gordon Pierce, who oversees air quality monitoring for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. If the standard is set at a lower range, he added, "it's going to be very difficult."
Once finalized, the ozone standard would not go into effect for years. States are given three years to collect air quality data before their status is determined. They then have years to devise a plan to cut pollution and force industry and communities to comply.
The worst-polluted regions in the U.S., including Los Angeles, would have until 2037 to meet a new standard.
"There will probably be two presidents elected before the first ounce of pollution is reduced by these new standards," said S. William Becker, executive director of the National Assn. of Clean Air Agencies, a coalition of state regulators.
By that time, many communities expect their emissions to fall because of other recently introduced air pollution measures whose secondary benefits include reductions in smog-forming emissions, including power plant and vehicle rules.
Banerjee reported from Washington and Barboza from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Priya Krishnakumar in Los Angeles contributed to this report.