The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is about to announce new regulations governing soot — the particles generated by trucks, farms, factories, wildfires, power plants and dusty roads. By law, the agency is not supposed to consider the impact on polluting industries. In practice, this is true, and these industries warn of dire economic consequences.
Under the Clean Air Act, every five years the EPA reexamines the science on various harmful pollutants. Fine particulate matter is extremely dangerous when it leaches into human lungs, and the law has caused a sharp decline in concentrations in areas like Los Angeles and the Ohio Valley.
But there is technically no safe level of particulate matter, and smoke from ever-expanding wildfires driven by a changing climate and decades of poor forest management has reversed recent progress. The Biden administration decided to shorten the review cycle after the Trump administration’s EPA concluded that no changes were necessary. As the decision nears, business groups are increasing resistance.
Last month, a coalition of major industries, including mining, oil and gas, manufacturing and lumber, sent a letter to White House Chief of Staff Jeffrey D. Zients, warning that “there would be no room for new economic development” in many areas if the EPA went ahead with a rule as tough as it was contemplating, jeopardizing the manufacturing recovery that President Biden had pushed laws that fund climate action and infrastructure investment.
Twenty years ago, electric power generation caused much higher soot emissions, so “there was room” to tighten air quality standards, Chad Whiteman, vice president of environmental and regulatory affairs at the Energy Institute, said in an interview. Global Chamber of Commerce. “Now we’ve reached a point where the costs are extremely high,” he said, “and you start to run into unintended consequences.”
Research shows that in the first decades after the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1967, rules reduced production and employmentas well as productivity, in pollution-intensive industries. That’s why the cost of those rules has often sparked protests in the industry. This time, steel and aluminum Producers have expressed particularly strong objections, with a company predicting that a stricter standard would “greatly decrease the chance” that it could restart a smelter in Kentucky that it idled in 2022 due to high energy prices.
However, new factories tend to have much more effective pollution control systems. This is especially true of two advanced manufacturing industries that the Biden administration has specifically encouraged: semiconductors and solar panel manufacturing. Trade associations for those industries said by email that a lower standard for particles was not a major concern.
Still, public health advocates argue that the avoided deaths, illnesses, and lost productivity caused by air pollution far outweigh the cost. The EPA set the potential benefits up to $55 billion by 2032 if the limit is reduced to nine micrograms per cubic meter, from the current 12 micrograms. That’s far more than the $500 million he estimates the proposal would cost in 2032.
So how are communities weighing the potential trade-offs?
At the state level, it depends largely on politics: Seventeen Democratic attorneys general wrote a joint comment letter in support of stricter rules, while 17 Republican attorneys general wrote one in favor of the status quo.
But it also depends on the mix of industries that prevail in a local area. Ohio offers a telling contrast.
Take Columbus, a former headquarters hub for consumer brands that in recent years has leaned more toward professional services like banking and insurance. The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, a coalition of metropolitan area governments, called for the EPA to impose the nine microgram standard.
“There may be some economic costs to major polluting industries, but there are real costs to health and the environment if we do nothing,” said Brandi Whetstone, the commission’s head of sustainability.
Columbus would incur fewer costs due to stricter regulation, as it has enjoyed strong job growth in recent years driven by white-collar industries. But local leaders also think clean air is a competitive advantage, with the power to attract both new residents and new businesses that value it.
Jim Schimmer is the economic development director for Franklin County, which includes Columbus. He has been pushing a plan to convert a former county-owned airport into a low-emission, energy-generating transportation and logistics hub, complete with solar panels and electrified short-haul trucks, and believes stricter particulate matter standards they could help.
“This is a great opportunity for us,” Schimmer said.
The Cleveland area is a different story, with a high concentration of steel, chemical, aviation and machinery production. Its regional planning council declined to comment on the prospect of stricter air quality standards. Chris Ronayne, the Democratic Cuyahoga County executive, was cautious in discussing the issue and emphasized the need for financial assistance to help businesses upgrade and reduce their emissions.
“I think there’s an attitude of ‘work with us, with carrot approaches, not just sticks,’” Ronayne said. “They come to us, in a manufacturing city, with incentives to help us get there, as well as regulation.”
Ohio has an entity to help with that. The Ohio Air Quality Development Authority was created 50 years ago to clean up brown clouds coming from smokestacks, using a combination of grants and low-cost revenue bond financing to help businesses finance improvements like solar panels and purifiers that filter exhaust gases from industries. facilities such as incinerators and concentrated animal feeding operations.
More funding is now available than ever, through the Inflation Reduction Act, which created a $27 billion “green bank” at the EPA to fund clean energy projects. Christina O’Keeffe, executive director of the Ohio agency, said she hoped that would allow it to also get into direct lending when more businesses need its help to comply with a stricter airline standard. There’s also billions in sight to help heavy industries modernize to reduce their carbon emissions, which tends to also help with particulate matter.
Public health advocates argue that EPA should set its standard regardless of the assistance available to cover the cost of compliance.
California, for example, has spent more than $10 billion to help factories and farmers pollute less. It is the only state with areas in “serious” violation to meet the established standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter of particles. The six most polluted counties in the country, which include the cities of Fresno and Bakersfield, have annual readings above 16 micrograms.
The Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, an advocacy group, has been pushing for more aggressive measures for decades. The group’s executive director, Catherine Garoupa, notes that despite persistent air problems, the federal government has not imposed strict restrictions, such as curbing highway funding.
“One of the huge imbalances in our region is that the trend has been to cater to the industry, treat it with kid gloves and give it billions of dollars in incentives to continue its practices,” Dr. Garoupa said. “They are generating wealth, but not for the people who actually live in the valley and breathe the air.”
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, which includes four of the six most polluted counties in the country, has a different opinion. He presented a comment letter warning of “devastating federal penalties,” including financial penalties, if the rule was tightened further.
The president of that air district is Vito Chiesa, a Stanislaus County commissioner who grows walnuts and almonds and used to run the local farm bureau. His operation has to comply with any limitations on agriculture that may be imposed, such as the ban on open burning of agricultural waste that the air district adopted after years of lawsuits of public health advocates. He fears that new restrictions without adequate support for small farmers will put the jobs of his employees at risk.
“I have about 15 employees here and I feel completely responsible for their families,” Chiesa said. “So how is this going to affect them? Our mission here at the air board is not to kill with a thousand cuts.
One point of agreement between advocates and many foes of a tougher standard: If the EPA moves forward with tougher rules, it should also crack down on sources of pollution, including railroads, ships and planes, under its exclusive jurisdiction. (The agency has proposed a stronger standard for heavy trucks, around which a similar fight is being waged).
Rebecca Maurer is a member of the City Council and represents a Cleveland neighborhood that has some of the worst pollution in the area. Her office frequently hears from constituents seeking help with safer housing for children with asthma, which is happening at an alarming rate. The district encompasses an industrial cluster that includes two steel plants, an asphalt plant, a recycling depot, rail yards and a variety of small factories.
That’s the most visible source of emissions, but Maurer believes his district’s many roads (and the diesel trucks that travel on them) offer the greatest opportunity to clean the air, requiring state and federal action. And light manufacturing jobs are needed to employ the two-thirds of county residents who lack college degrees, he said.
“What we don’t want is another asphalt plant and we don’t want e-commerce,” Maurer said. “We want something in between. “We’re trying to thread this needle between these hugely polluting plants and low-density, low-wage warehouse jobs.”