The NAAQS Treadmill – time to fix it

Nov 05, 2015
By Tim Hunt
Senior Director, Air Quality Programs

On Oct. 26 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tightened the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ozone before states even had a chance to fulfill their previous obligations to meet the 2008 ozone limits. Moreover, the underlying scientific evidence does not support the new additional burdens placed on forest product mills. Something is broken.

The problem originates with the Clean Air Act (CAA), which puts EPA on a very fast regulatory treadmill to review the rule every five years to determine whether it is still protective, for not one or two NAAQSs but six — ozone just being the most recent. Essentially every year, a NAAQS is open for adjustments, which makes it very challenging for businesses to plan investments in a globally competitive marketplace. And by the way, the NAAQS treadmill is not EPA’s only responsibility under the CAA; the air toxics regulatory treadmill runs every eight years for about 100 rules … but I digress.

We know that air quality has improved substantially since the passage of the 1970 CAA and the 1990 CAA Amendments — about 70 percent between 1970 and 2014 for the six NAAQS in aggregate. And since it takes three to 10 years (or more) for the full emission reduction benefit of regulations to materialize, air quality will continue to improve regardless. When announcing the tougher ozone NAAQS, EPA acknowledged these air quality improvements that are on the way by focusing on the mere 14 counties (with monitors and excluding California) that are projected to exceed the ozone NAAQS in 2025. Yet, the NAAQS applies in 2015, when 213 counties exceed 70 ppb and even more surrounding counties may be designated “non-attainment” following usual protocols. For a rural based industry, this is not the full story.  

Ironically, the most egregious impact of a tougher NAAQS is the chilling effect on investments in areas that meet the NAAQS…that have clean air. You see, even in these “attainment areas,” the emissions from well-controlled projects when added to the existing elevated background levels (which can be 75 to 90 percent of the NAAQS) frequently can exceed the standard, thus thwarting the project. The grading curve for this pass/fail test has gotten harder over time as the NAAQSs get tightened. Now one needs the equivalent of an “A” just to pass. Many unrealistic assumptions and outdated permitting polices prevent “A” grades, even if the project will improve environmental performance, resulting in lost opportunities for mill workers and the industry.

Until the law is modernized to slow down the NAAQS treadmill to a once-every-10-year pace, EPA should use its authorities to implement the new ozone standard in as flexible a manner as possible, including delaying any source-specific ozone modeling requirements until the tools have been fully validated. The forest products industry has a strong record of improving environmental performance so EPA needs to adopt regulatory and permitting programs that encourage investment and support air quality.