Polluting industries say the cost of clean air is too high

Polluting industries say the cost of clean air is too high

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is about to announce new regulations governing soot — particles generated by trucks, farms, factories, wildfires, power plants, and dusty roads. Under the law, the agency is not supposed to take into account the impact on polluting industries. In practice, this is the case – and these industries warn of dire economic consequences.

Under the Clean Air Act, every five years the EPA re-examines the science on several harmful pollutants. Fine particles are extremely dangerous when they seep into human lungs, and the law has dramatically reduced their concentrations in areas like Los Angeles and the Ohio Valley.

But technically there is no safe level of particulate matter, and ever-present wildfire smoke caused by climate change and decades of forest mismanagement have reversed recent progress. The Biden administration decided to shorten the review cycle after the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency concluded no change was needed. As the decision approaches, business groups are ramping up resistance.

Last month, a coalition of major industries, including mining, oil and gas, manufacturing and timber, sent a letter to White House chief of staff Jeffrey Zients warning that “no room will be left for new economic development.” In many areas if the EPA goes ahead with a standard as stringent as it had contemplated, it would jeopardize the manufacturing recovery that President Biden has pushed through with climate action financing and infrastructure investment laws.

Twenty years ago, electric power generation generated much higher emissions of soot, so “there was room” to tighten air quality standards, Chad Whitman, vice president of environment and regulatory affairs at the Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, said in an interview. “We’ve now reached the point where the costs are so high, they’re starting to have unintended consequences,” he said.

Research shows that in the first decades after the Clean Air Act was passed in 1967, the rules reduced production and employment, as well as productivity, in pollution-intensive industries. For this reason, the cost of these rules has often sparked protests in the industry. This time, steel and aluminum producers voiced particularly strong objections, with one company predicting that a more stringent standard would “significantly reduce the likelihood” of its ability to restart a smelter in Kentucky that had been shut down in 2022 due to high… Energy prices.

However, new plants tend to have more effective pollution control systems. This is especially true for two advanced manufacturing industries that the Biden administration has specifically encouraged: semiconductor and solar panel manufacturing. Trade associations for those industries said by email that the minimum particulate matter standard is not a major concern.

Regardless, public health advocates argue that the deaths, illnesses averted, and lost productivity as a result of air pollution far outweigh the cost. The EPA pegs potential benefits at up to $55 billion by 2032 if it lowers the limit to nine micrograms per cubic metre, from the current 12 micrograms. That’s far more than the $500 million the proposal is estimated to cost in 2032.

So, how do societies weigh potential trade-offs?

At the state level, it depends largely on politics: Seventeen Democratic attorneys general wrote a joint comment letter in support of the stricter rules, while 17 Republican attorneys general wrote one letter in favor of the status quo.

But it also depends on the mix of industries prevailing in the local area. Ohio State provides a clear contrast.

Take Columbus, a longtime hub for consumer brands that in recent years has moved more toward professional services like banking and insurance. The Central Ohio Regional Planning Commission, a coalition of urban governments, called on the EPA to impose the nine-microgram standard.

“There may be some economic costs to major polluting industries, but there are real health and environmental costs if we do nothing,” said Brandi Whetstone, the commission’s sustainability officer.

Columbus will incur lower costs due to tighter regulation, having enjoyed strong job growth in recent years driven by white-collar industries. But local leaders also believe clean air is a competitive advantage, with the ability to attract new residents and new businesses that value it.

Jim Shimer is the economic development director for Franklin County, which includes Columbus. He has been pushing a plan to transform the old county-owned airport into a low-emission, energy-generating transportation and logistics hub, equipped with solar arrays and electrified trucks for short hauls, and believes stronger rules on particulate matter could help.

“This is a great opportunity for us,” Mr. Shimer said.

The Cleveland area is a different story, with a high concentration of steel, chemical, aviation and machinery production. The Regional Planning Board declined to comment on the possibility of stricter air quality rules. Chris Ronayne, the Democratic executive of Cuyahoga County, was cautious in discussing the topic, stressing the need for financial assistance to help companies step up to reduce their emissions.

“I think there is an attitude that says: ‘Work with us, with the carrot approach, not just the big stick,’” Mr Ronayne said. “Come to us, in an industrial city, with both 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 the brown clouds that billow out of smokestacks, using a combination of grants and low-cost revenue bond funding to help companies finance upgrades such as solar panels and scrubbers that filter exhaust from factories. Facilities such as incinerators and concentrated animal feeding operations.

And now financing is more available than ever — through the Inflation Control Act, which created a $27 billion “green bank” at the Environmental Protection Agency to finance clean energy projects. Christina O’Keefe, executive director of the Ohio agency, said she hopes this will allow it to get into direct lending as well when more businesses need its help to meet stricter weather standards. There are also billions in the future to help heavy industry modernize to lower their carbon emissions, which tends to help deal with particulate matter as well.

Public health advocates argue that the EPA should set its standards regardless of the help available to cover the cost of compliance.

California, for example, has spent more than $10 billion to help factories and farmers reduce pollution. It is the only state with areas in “serious” violation of meeting the standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter. The nation’s six most polluted counties, which include the cities of Fresno and Bakersfield, have annual readings of more than 16 micrograms.

The Central Valley Air Quality Alliance, an advocacy group, has been pushing for stricter enforcement for decades. The group’s executive director, Katherine Garuba, points out that despite the ongoing air problems, the federal government has not imposed strict restrictions, such as freezing highway funding.

“One of the huge imbalances in our region is that the trend is to cater to industry, treat them with kid gloves, and give them billions of dollars in incentive money to continue their practices,” Dr. Garuba said. “They generate 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 view. It submitted a comment letter warning of “devastating federal penalties,” including financial penalties, if the standard is tightened further.

The head of that air district is Vito Chiesa, a Stanislaus County commissioner who grew walnuts and almonds and headed the local farm bureau. Its operation must comply with any restrictions that may be imposed on agriculture, such as a ban on the open burning of agricultural waste, which the air district adopted after years of demands from public health advocates. He fears that imposing further restrictions without adequate support for small farmers will put his employees’ jobs at risk.

“I have about 15 employees here, and I feel completely responsible for their families,” Mr. Chiesa said. “How will this affect them? Our mission here on the plane is not to take a thousand wounds.”

One point of agreement between supporters and many opponents of a stronger standard: If the EPA goes ahead with stricter rules, it must also crack down on sources of pollution, including railroads, ships and planes, that are under its sole jurisdiction. (The agency has proposed a stronger standard for heavy trucks, over which a similar battle is underway.)

Rebecca Maurer is a city councilwoman who represents one of the Cleveland neighborhoods with the worst pollution rates in the region. Her office often hears from constituents asking for help with safer housing for children with asthma, which is happening at alarming rates. The area includes an industrial cluster including two steel mills, an asphalt plant, a recycling depot, rail yards and various small factories.

That’s the most obvious source of emissions, but Ms. Maurer believes her region’s many highways — and the diesel trucks that drive them — offer the greatest opportunity to clean the air, which requires action at the state and federal levels. She said light manufacturing jobs are needed to employ the two-thirds of the county’s population who lack college degrees.

“What we don’t want is another asphalt plant, and we don’t want e-commerce,” Ms. Maurer said. “We want something in between. We’re trying to thread that needle between these highly polluting factories and the low-density, low-wage warehouse jobs.

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