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240 Million Americans Will Breathe Easier Thanks to New Clean Air Protections

John Walke

Posted July 7, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, U.S. Law and Policy

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Today, EPA announced the finalized Cross-State Air Pollution Rule [pdf], which protects over 240 million Americans from deadly power plant air pollution by reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) that cross state lines and worsen air quality in downwind states.

The rule requires pollution reductions from power plants in 27 states [pdf] in the eastern half of the United States.

  • 23 of these states [pdf] will be required to reduce SO2 and NOx from power plants year-round. SO2 and NOx are components of smog and soot, and have significant impacts on human health and the environment.
  • 20 states [pdf] will be required to reduce NOx emissions during the “ozone season” of May to September, when summertime heat and sunlight combine with certain pollutants to make the air particularly dangerous to breathe.
  • Along with the final rule, EPA today proposes to add six more states [pdf] to the seasonal ozone program, which would bring the total number of states regulated under the rule to 28. EPA is currently taking comments on this proposal.

What are the Benefits of the Rule?

EPA’s rule will curb SO2 and NOx emissions from power plants that contribute to dangerous smog and soot in other states. By 2014, this rule, combined with other EPA and state actions, will reduce SO2 emissions nationwide by 73 percent [pdf] from 2005 levels. Power plant emissions of NOx will be reduced 54 percent [pdf] from 2005 levels.

EPA estimates that starting in 2014, every year this rule will prevent:

  • 13,000 to 34,000 premature deaths;
  • 19,000 cases of acute bronchitis;
  • 15,000 nonfatal heart attacks;
  • 19,000 hospital and emergency room visits;
  • 1.8 million days when people miss work or school;
  • 400,000 cases of aggravated asthma; and
  • 420,000 cases of upper and lower respiratory symptoms.

EPA estimates that annual health and environmental benefits from the rule will range from $120 to $280 billion dollars. In contrast, EPA projects the costs of the rule to be approximately $800 million annually, combined with an estimated $1.6 billion per year in capital investments that power plants have already started implementing as a result of the Bush EPA's Clean Air Interstate Rule.

As Bill Becker, the president of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies noted in a statement today, “there is substantial opportunity for EPA to further tighten the NOx and SO2 caps while still maintaining a great margin of benefit over cost” because of the enormous benefit-to-cost ratio for the rule.

What States’ Obligations Have Changed From the Proposal?

The rule levels the playing field among all states that will be reducing their emissions of smog and soot to protect neighboring states. Based on data and comments received, EPA made a few changes to the obligations of individual states between the proposed and final rules. Most notably:

  • Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia are no longer part of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule;
  • Florida and Louisiana must now only reduce emissions of NOx during the summertime ozone season. These states were removed from the annual SO2 and NOx emissions programs
  • Texas must now reduce SO2 and NOx emissions both during the ozone season and annually. As my friend Vicki Patton, a lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund, said to the Washington Post, power plants in Texas “are the nation’s largest emitter” of nitrogen oxide and “the second largest emitter” of sulfur dioxide. EPA did not propose to include Texas in the annual reductions part of the rule but solicited comment on this issue; after reviewing data and comments received, EPA found that air pollution from Texas had significant impacts on Louisiana and should be included in both the summertime and annual reduction portions of the rule. 
  • Along with the final rule, EPA issued a proposal to require Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma and Wisconsin to reduce SO2 and NOx emissions during the ozone season, which would bring the number of states regulated by the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule to 28.
  • EPA estimates that 340,000 tons per year of NOx will be eliminated from the seasonal ozone part of the Cross-State rule alone.

What is the History of this Rule?

This rule replaces the Bush-era 2005 “Clean Air Interstate Rule” (CAIR),  which the D.C. Circuit court found unlawful [pdf] in two respects in 2008. The court kept CAIR in place, but directed EPA to replace the rule as quickly as possible. In order to facilitate rapid compliance with the court decision, EPA has adopted federal implementation plans, or FIPs, for each of the 27 states covered by today’s rule.

These FIPs will allow states to meet the compliance deadlines of the rule, some of which start January 1, 2012. Though the rule requires states to start reducing pollution quickly, the rule is based on standards for fine particulate matter (components of soot) that were established by EPA in 1997 and 2006, and standards for ozone that the agency put into place in 1997.

EPA is in the process of updating these out-of-date ozone and fine particulate matter National Ambient Air Quality Standards (“NAAQS”), and the rule provides a novel and useful process for updating states’ obligations each time the NAAQS are changed. The rule also provides a method for states to develop their own compliance plans, determining how to meet the rule's obligations by as early as 2014 using their own State Implementation Plans.

EPA’s adaptable Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will ensure that upwind states meet the benchmarks that have been set for them so their downwind neighbors have reduced levels of dangerous smog and soot pollution that their citizens must breathe.

As Senator Tom Carper, (D-Del.), said today, "[a]s those of us who live in Delaware and other so-called 'tail pipe' states on the East Coast know all too well, our neighboring states' dirty air has adversely affected the health and well-being of Delawareans, just by virtue of our location. We need to change that and this cross-state air pollution rule is an important tool to help us in that effort."

This rule is long-overdue, and the 240 million Americans that will now breathe easier should celebrate today’s victory for clean air. 

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