by Dr. Roy Cordato
Senior Economist, Emeritas
For the last several years, from April to October, this newsletter has featured weekly reports on ozone (smog) levels in North Carolina. (For example, see the last item here.) What we have done is track the number of "high ozone" days, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, experienced at all of the monitored locations throughout the state. Each week during the ozone season, this newsletter reported how many high ozone days had been experienced throughout the state during the previous week, where they were experienced, and how many were recorded during the entire season to date. According to current EPA standards, a region or county experiences a high ozone day if a monitor in that area registers the amount of ozone in the air as 76 parts per billion (ppb) or greater.
So what happened this year? Beginning April 1, I was expecting to start receiving the weekly ozone reports from the NC Division of Air Quality (DAQ) as usual, but they didn’t come. I have no idea why, but suddenly a few weeks ago the data started flowing, and once again DAQ is sending out their weekly reports. I figured that, like last year and the year before, it was a pretty calm year for ozone in the state, since I hadn’t been hearing any warnings of high ozone on the morning weather report. But, of course, that could have just been a Raleigh media market phenomenon. After all, in terms of high concentrations of smog, Charlotte and the Triad are usually where all the action is.
So when I received the first weekly ozone report of the season on August 5, I was anxious to open up the spreadsheet and see how things looked. I found that I hadn’t been missing much. The reason why there has been little or no discussion of smog this year is that on 45 monitors throughout the state there have, so far, not been any high ozone days this season. And the latest report, which includes data through August 14th, continues the trend. In this case, no news for the last 4 and a half months is good news. It should be noted that last year there was only 1 high ozone day.
But don’t get too comfortable; all this could change real soon. Over the next few years nearly all of North Carolina’s counties could start to experience dozens of high ozone days and be thrown out of compliance with EPA standards. This could result in tens of millions of dollars in costs for these localities and the businesses, workers, and consumers that live in them. And, believe it or not, none of this will have anything to do with worsening air quality. In fact, it is quite likely that air quality in the state will continue to improve as it has for the past 3 decades.
The reason for this possible coming hardship is that the EPA is threatening to dramatically tighten the standards — from a maximum of 75 ppb to possibly as low as 60. For some locations, this is below natural background levels. (That’s right, certain background levels of ozone occur naturally.) In the next few months, the EPA is expected to come out with a new standard, and they are eying 60 ppb as a possible maximum.
As reported by Daren Bakst, writing for the Heritage Foundation, the EPA’s own estimates are that compliance with this standard would cost the country over $90 billion. Given the source, this should be taken as an at least, not as an at most. A report by NERA Economic Consulting, commissioned by the National Association of Manufactures, looks much more dismal. It argues that this would be "the most costly regulation in history." Here are the specific NAM results reported by Bakst. A new standard of 60 ppb would:
Reduce gross domestic product by $270 billion per year on average over the period from 2017 through 2040,
Result in an average annual loss of 2.9 million job-equivalents through 2040, and
Impose $2.2 trillion in compliance costs from 2017 through 2040.
[Citations to both the EPA and the NAM studies are included in Bakst’s article.]
Several years ago I was attending a conference where an EPA representative was speaking. She was talking about the transition from what was then the standard — 80 ppb — to the current standard of 75 ppb. At the time, after about 5 years, most regions in North Carolina were just coming into compliance with the 80 ppb standard, and I guess the EPA was not happy about this. I asked the speaker why the EPA was tightening down on the standard just when most areas were coming into compliance. Her response to me was, "We don’t want localities getting too comfortable." This is the mentality of a true ideologue, not of a servant of the people, and it is very likely that this is the mentality of those who are about to tighten down on these standards once again.
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