The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday proposed to lower ground-level ozone standards from those set in March 2008. The tighter so-called “smog” regulations would require power plants to cut their emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and other volatile organic compounds.

The new rule changes the cap for ground-level ozone from 0.075 parts per million (ppm) emitted during any eight-hour period to between 0.060 and 0.070 ppm. It would  be gradually implemented between now and 2030. A final rule is expected by Aug. 31.

The EPA had stayed implementation of the 2008 ozone standards while it performed its review. Now it is proposing an accelerated implementation plan for the newly proposed standard. States would recommend areas to be designated as not in attainment of the revised standard in January 2011, with final determinations by the EPA by July 2011. State implementation plans for the new ozone standards would be due to the agency by December 2013. Additionally, states would be required to comply with the primary standard between 2014 and 2031.

The EPA chose to revise the new standards for ozone at 40 C.F.R. Parts 50 and 58 after New York and 13 other states and environmental groups filed several suits challenging the 2008 standards, contending that they were too weak to protect public health. The standards were also challenged by Mississippi and a coalition of industry groups that argued the standards were too strict.

The new standards—a long overdue action—were based on “the best science,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson last week. The decision was made after a review of the science that guided the 2008 decision, including more than 1,700 scientific studies and public comments from the 2008 rulemaking process. Jackson also said that the EPA had reviewed findings of the independent Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which recommended the proposed standards.

The EPA, which had announced last September that it would revise the standard, said the cost to affected industries of meeting the 0.070 ppm standard would be between $19 billion and $25 billion per year in 2020. Meeting a standard of 0.060 ppm would cost an estimated $52 billion to $90 billion annually in 2020.

But the new standards would save $14 billion to $100 billion in healthcare bills for asthma, lung damage, and other diseases as well as lost work costs, the agency said.

While these standards were intended to protect public health, the EPA also proposed to set a separate “secondary” standard to protect the environment. Ozone is a gas composed of three oxygen atoms. It is not usually emitted directly into the air, but at ground level is created by a chemical reaction between oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight.

The EPA’s announcement drew praise from environmental and health groups, such as the Sierra Club and the American Lung Association. Several states also approved of the proposed rules, while others outright denounced them.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry immediately issued a statement on Thursday, saying that “The EPA’s only consistent target has been the target on the backs of Texas workers and taxpayers.”

“If this proposal is adopted, it will mark the second time in two years the federal government has imposed drastically reduced standards on states,” he said. “We’ve worked hard and invested over $1 billion to reach compliance on the original target without sacrificing Texas jobs or economic momentum.

Perry said that since 2000, Texas clean efforts had helped lower  NOx levels by 46% and overall ozone by 22%. “We’ve done this during a time of economic prosperity unrivaled in the nation,” he added.

The governor’s sentiment was mirrored by industry groups. The Edison Electric Institute, a utilities trade group, said in a statement that industry had already spent $100 billion to reduce NOx emissions.

“We probably won’t know for a couple of years just what utilities and other emissions sources will be required to do in response to a tighter ozone standard,” said John Kinsman, senior director for the environment at the Edison Electric Institute. “States will have to cast a very wide net when targeting sources for emissions cuts, in part because utilities already have made substantial reductions in ozone-related emissions.”

The agency will accept public comments on the proposed standard for 60 days after the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register. The EPA will also hold three public hearings on the proposal: Feb. 2, 2010, in Arlington, Va., and in Houston, Texas; and Feb. 4, 2010, in Sacramento, Calif. 

Source: EPA, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Edison Electric Institute