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Chamber Executive Article Archive

Chambers, Ozone Standards, and the EPA

Tom Ewing

As 2015 started, many local and state chambers had their advocacy sights set on an issue of critical importance: The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to raise the air quality standard for ozone, a pollutant caused by emissions from cars, trucks, industrial plants and electric utilities. At certain exposures, ozone can cause lung and breathing problems.

Ozone limits are set within a complex regulatory framework overseen by state and federal environmental authorities. The current standard is 75 parts per billion (ppb) but it has not been implemented; the older standard of 80 ppb is still in use.

In 2011 President Obama, citing economic factors, directed the EPA to continue to enforce the older standard of 80 ppb. The Clean Air Act requires EPA to review the standards every five years, and in 2014, EPA called for public comments on a proposed a new standard between 65-70 ppb.

According to politico.com, “By law, EPA must set the air quality standard based on what the best science says is safe to breathe, and not on how much it will cost to get there.” EPA has said the economic benefits of a stricter ozone standard, including a reduction in illnesses and premature deaths, would outweigh the costs by a wide margin. The National Association of Manufacturers and others dispute EPA’s estimates.

Business Concerns

Chambers have an inherent interest in ozone regulations because their manufacturer members must deal with the industrial permits required for boilers, painting and coating systems, storage tanks, fuels and fuel processes, power generation, and almost any activity that might emit pollutants that form ozone. And, reducing ozone pollution is costly.

In addition, ozone regulations can determine how, and at what cost, new businesses can expand or relocate in a metropolitan area. Ozone regulations also impact transportation planning, another high priority topic for chambers and their members.

Certainly we want our communities to have unquestioned environmental quality. Regions known for clean air, clean water and environmental stewardship will attract growth. This is a topic deserving close attention from many parties, requiring a decision that recognizes and balances sometimes conflicting needs and interests. In their comments, many chambers noted that we all breathe the same air, we all want clean air, but we also need economies that are healthy, competitive and allowed to grow.

The Process

EPA presents its policy proposals in the Federal Register, explaining background, agency reasoning, and statutory requirements of the agency’s responsibilities. The proposal also establishes deadlines for a formal public comment period.

EPA’s move to revise the ozone standard appeared in the Federal Register, Dec. 17, 2014. The public comment period started the same day and lasted until March 17, 2015. All public comments are filed in a regulatory “docket” at www.regulations.gov. EPA considers these comments as it develops its final decision, which in this case is due by Oct. 1, 2015. The agency does not have to change the ozone standard, but the Clean Air Act requires EPA to review the standard every five years.

Chambers Speak Up

Approximately 100 state and local chambers commented on the EPA proposal. (This story does not include comments from national trade and business organizations.) The chambers’ common message:

Do not lower the standard; doing so would hurt local economies and business operations. (Two chambers disagreed. One endorsed a standard of 70 ppb. The other: 60 ppb.)

  • EPA’s claims about resulting health benefits are not sufficiently grounded.
  • The current standard of 75 ppb should be retained; it maintains an adequate margin of public safety, and it still has not been fully implemented.
  • EPA says that ozone levels will continue to decline because of controls already in place; allow these emerging benefits to accrue and reevaluate the need for additional pollution controls later.

Critics often charge that chambers and businesses don’t care about the environment and want to avoid regulatory oversight. Here’s a typical critical comment from the docket: “Please ignore those companies and chambers of commerce who say that regulating air polluting sources will hurt the economy. They don’t care about us! They care about the almighty dollar!”

In fact, that regressive sentiment never emerges from chamber comments. No chamber called for dismantling clean air regulations. None suggested that the 75 ppb standard should be increased, i.e., that clean air policy should be weakened.

Achieving More Impact

Some chambers achieved more impact by organizing and cooperating. The Virginia Chamber assembled a coalition of 25 local chambers which spoke with one voice to the EPA. The docket includes a letter to Virginia’s governor, submitted by the Alleghany Highlands Chamber, a coalition participant. These kinds of linkages build a stronger advocacy effort. It’s easier to overlook a single commenter; not so with large groups!

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber (BRAC) led a notable advocacy effort for Louisiana business and economic development interests, assembling a coalition of 18 chambers and economic development organizations including the North Louisiana Economic Partnership, 14 parishes in the north, and Greater New Orleans, Inc. BRAC drafted a common letter signed by all coalition partners. Plus, each partner sent its own letter to the docket, emphasizing common policy concerns as well as negative impacts on local economies and business development. “One voice. Amplified” is the motto used by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, a team member within the BRAC coalition.

The BRAC letters also were sent to Louisiana’s congressional delegation, as well as EPA’s District 6 Regional office in Dallas, said Ansley Zehnder, BRAC’s senior V.P. of marketing. This is critical political outreach. After all, it’s Congress that could do something about EPA’s proposed ozone revisions. The work paid off. Louisiana Sen. David Vitter used BRAC’s research and conclusions in his comments to EPA’s docket.

BRAC’s effort was led by Erin Monroe Wesley, EVP & COO, who participated in a January EPA field hearing in Arlington, Texas, which was the beginning of extensive research to understand the impact of the proposed standard, not just on Louisiana but on some of the nation’s top metro economies. Coalition work started next.

Some chambers achieved more impact by organizing and cooperating. The Virginia Chamber assembled a coalition of 25 local chambers which spoke with one voice to the EPA.

Looking Ahead

While most observers expect the EPA to revise the standard downward, chamber advocacy efforts were not in vain. Government officials know more about how their decisions create real consequences for workers, investors, entrepreneurs and taxpayers. And this issue has a long future. Advocacy doesn’t stop when the public comment period closes. If the ozone standard is lowered, what will your chamber do? What must you do now to be ready for EPA’s decision? What is your message? Who are your partners?

This remains an active agenda item for BRAC, which continues to work with its economic development partners, track updates in EPA’s rulemaking process, and monitor Congressional action. One bill BRAC follows is the Clean Air, Strong Economies Act, H.R.1388, cosponsored by Rep. Pete Olson (Texas) and Rep. Bob Latta (Ohio). The bill would require EPA to consider the costs of complying with limits for ozone.

Bottom line: This issue is far from over. Chambers need to stay focused and active!

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