Tighter EPA Ozone Standards Will Not Resolve Urban Smog Problems, RFF Researchers Argue

November 20, 1996

WASHINGTON, DC -- With the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expected soon to propose tighter air quality standards for ground-level ozone and particulate matter, researchers at Resources for the Future (RFF) suggest that Congress and environmental regulators should reconsider how they set and implement the Clean Air Act standards for ozone, a pollutant that can be harmful to people, animals, crops, and other materials.

RFF's Alan Krupnick and John Anderson, in their article "Revising the Ozone Standard," emphasize that the economic costs of regulation are an inescapable reality, and the current Clean Air Act performs a disservice by ignoring these costs; further, they argue, because local conditions vary greatly across the country, a uniform national standard for ground-level ozone makes it impossible for some cities to meet the standard -- despite enormous regulatory efforts on their part.

The article, which appears in the Fall 1996 issue of Resources, RFF's quarterly publication of news and policy analysis, highlights barriers to ozone reduction, methods used to measure ozone levels, possible policy options, and the role that local conditions, economic competition, and voluntary participation can play in achieving lower ozone levels.

Ground-level ozone is produced when nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons react in sunlight. Iits sources include cars, trucks, power plants and factories. It is not to be confused with stratospheric ozone, which is found 9 to 18 miles high in the Earth's atmosphere and protects people from harmful radiation from the sun. Ground-level ozone pollution, or smog, is mainly a daytime problem during summer months because of sunlight's primary role in its formation.

Most of the ozone reductions in the United States to date have been achieved by imposing very effective -- but costly -- regulations on big companies -- utilities, oil refiners, auto manufacturers, steel producers, among others. The authors argue that instead of seeking further reductions in emissions from industries, which would be both difficult and even more expensive, more promising targets are now individuals -- their driving habits and activities in recreation and lawn maintenance.

The City of Baltimore has recently calculated that motorboats and lawnmowers alone currently contribute more ozone to its air than all of its industry together. But public support for restrictions these personal activities has never been great. Krupnick and Anderson suggest that environmental policymakers should not overlook the public's voluntarily participatation in reducing ozone levels as an alternative to mandated regulation.

To combat air pollution, a number of cities have tried less expensive, public campaigns to limit ozone-producing activities on the hottest afternoons to combat pollution. The authors cite a Washington-Baltimore area program that alerts citizens on days forecasted to produce high ozone levels. On those days, the public is asked to reduce the use of their cars and fuel them after dark, postpone painting with oil-based paints, and avoid using gasoline-powered garden equipment and lighter fluid to start a charcoal grill.

The Clean Air Act has brought great benefits to this country over many years "by drastically reducing the presence of many harmful pollutants," conclude Krupnick and Anderson. But if ozone standards are tightened even further, they say, the EPA will be "on a track that would lead to more frustration, more litigation, and much higher costs. Part of the trouble lies with a law badly designed for the job ahead. Part of it lies with a public that wants complete protection but is reluctant to acknowledge that its habits, particularly on the highway, contribute to air pollution."

Currently, 71 metropolitan areas are operating in violation of the ozone standards, including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Houston and Baltimore.
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Alan Krupnick is a senior fellow in RFF's Quality of the Environment division. He co-chairs a federal advisory committee that is providing counsel to the EPA on its ozone regulations. John Anderson is RFF's Journalist in Residence, and a former editorial page staff member of the Washington Post.

The article "Revising the Ozone Standard" is available on RFF's web site at http://www.rff.org.

To interview RFF experts on ground-level ozone standards and the Clean Air Act, contact Michael Tebo in RFF's public affairs office at (202) 328-5019.

Resources for the Future (RFF)

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