Traditional Pollutants Definitely Still Matter: EPA’s Draft Review Recommends More Stringent Particulate Standards

Last week, I posted about improvements in air quality since 1990. It’s a good thing air quality is improving, because, at the same time, the science keeps suggesting that ever lower pollutant levels pose risks to public health. The latest news was EPA’s draft review of the appropriate level at which to set the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for particulate matter.

EPA most recently revised the PM standard in 2006, setting it at 15 ug/m3, notwithstanding the staff recommendation to set the standard at between 13 ug/m3 and 14 ug/m3As I have discussed, EPA’s decision was struck down by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, because EPA could not justify its departure from the scientific recommendations it has received.

Now, the draft Policy Assessment has concluded that the 15 ug/m3 is not sufficiently stringent. The draft suggested two ranges for potential revised standards:

Annual standard of between 12 and 13 ug/m3; 24-hour standard of 30 to 35 ug/m3

Annual standard of between 10 and 11 ug/m3; 24-hour standard of 25 to 30 ug/m3

A more stringent PM standard is going to have significant implications. These include:

1. Strengthening the logic for three pollutant legislation. First, the health effects described in the Policy Assessment suggest the need for such legislation, because the targets of three pollutant legislation are among the big contributors to PM emissions. Second, in order to meet a more stringent standard, reductions of the sort contemplated in three pollutant legislation are going to be necessary.

2. It may be simply a restatement of the first point, but the pressure on old fossil fuel plants, particularly old coal plants, is only going to increase as a result of the Policy Assessment. In this context, it is noteworthy that, at a seminar on Friday, Gina McCarthy, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, in discussing the number of rules EPA is obligated to issue in the next 12-18 months, indicated her sense that the biggest impact on GHG emissions might not result from EPA’s tailoring rule and direct regulation of GHGs, but would instead result from the secondary effect from the full panoply of traditional pollutant regulations on EPA’s docket. In other words, once EPA is done with new CAIR regulations, MACT rules, and SIP revisions following a more stringent PM standard, the economics of old coal plants will be such as to force switching to more climate-friendly energy sources, even aside from direct GHG regulation.

I think that Gina is probably right, and I’m particularly appreciative that she is able to take the long view. In the short run, coal remains cheap. Moreover, traditional control technologies for SO2 and NOx require energy, increase station service, and thus actually do not help with GHG reductions. Nonetheless, if one does take the long view, more stringent traditional regulation, including that resulting from more stringent PM standards, will increase the cost of fossil fuels and help drive the economy towards energy sources that are more climate friendly.

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