A TIGHTER FILTER
NOVEMBER 27, 1996
The Environmental Protection Agency proposed tougher air pollution regulations Wednesday. The agency wants to reduce smog levels by a third. While hailed by environmentalists, the move is looked at with scepticism by industry. Margaret Warner takes a closer look.
MARGARET WARNER: The Environmental Protection Agency today proposed new, tougher air quality standards that would require dramatic new reductions in two types of pollutants. The first target is ozone, often called smog, which is produced when sunlight reacts with substances like car exhausts and smokestack emissions. The agency wants to reduce the current ozone target levels by another one third. The second target are so-called particulates, very small, airborne particles generated by a variety of sources, including manufacturing, construction, transportation, and agriculture. The EPA wants to start regulating the smallest of these particles, 75 percent smaller than the particles theyíve regulated in the past. Todayís action is just the beginning of a process that will include public comment and congressional review, but it has already sparked sharp debate. For that debate, weíre joined now by Carol Browner, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and C. Boyden Gray, a former counsel to President Bush. Mr. Gray works for Geneva Steel, a Utah manufacturer, and also represents the Air Quality Standards Coalition, a group of companies fighting the new regulations. Good evening, both of you. Ms. Browner, tell us why the EPA thinks these new standards are necessary.
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CAROL BROWNER, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator: We conducted the most extensive scientific peer review in the history of the agency. We began this process three and a half years ago, six thousand studies. And what the independent scientific peer review panel found is that the current standards leave far too many Americans at risk, particularly children. What weíre talking about are premature deaths. Otherwise healthy elderly senior citizens died because of air pollution. Weíre talking about aggravated asthma attacks in our children. Asthma is now the single largest cause of hospitalization for young children in this country--bronchitis, respiratory illness, people not able to go to work, or kids miss school. The health effects are clear and convincing.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Gray, why are you opposed, and the industries you represent opposed?
C. BOYDEN GRAY, Air Quality Standards Coalition: Well, we donít think the health effects are anywhere convincing at all. We think the evidence, indeed, is quite thin. And our position is that since these pollutants are all being driven down rather dramatically by the current Clean Air Act and will be so driven down well into the next century that there is time for EPA to do some more research to be sure that we are targeting the right pollutants to deal with the right health problems. EPA has told us on the PM, on the particulate matter issue, for example, that they really donít have enough data and donít have enough research to know what or how to regulate, but they need to put a standard out there in order to generate the data and do the research. And we say no, why donít you put the monitors out, gather the data, find out whatís going on, and then put a standard in. You can still regulate in time to catch up with the current Clean Air Act. There are many provisions in the Clean Air Act which have not yet been implemented, and we have a long way to go to see--in our effort to see these pollutants reduced under the current statute.
MARGARET WARNER: How solid do you think the scientific evidence is?
CAROL BROWNER: The science is overwhelming. I think itís also important to understand what the law says. The Clean Air Act has said for the last 26 years--it was reaffirmed by President Bush just in 1990--that the publicís health must be protected with a margin of safety. It requires EPA at least every five years, sooner if appropriate, to review current public health standards, to look at available science, and to make that determination, and thatís what weíre doing.
MARGARET WARNER: So what has changed since the last time EPA promulgated standards, both in ozone and with these particulates?
CAROL BROWNER: Well, people at EPA have wanted to do this for some time. Unfortunately, prior administrations essentially blocked that. They wouldnít allow EPA to undertake the extensive review to make the kind of proposals that we make today. What has changed is the science. The health effects have been far better documented. They are far more compelling than they have been previously. Some of these studies that we reviewed, that our independent scientific panel reviewed, literally involved hundreds of thousands of people, trips to hospitals, thereís demonstrations that under certain whether conditions, certain pollution conditions people are becoming sick. Our children are suffering.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Gray, are you contending that these health effects havenít been documented enough, or they simply arenít there?
C. BOYDEN GRAY: Well, I think itís a bit bizarre to say that the Bush administration blocked review of clean air, since he put through the most sweeping environmental statute ever adopted. The question is: What has surfaced in the science since 1990, when the Congress adopted this very sweeping statute, which is only now beginning to be implemented? And we donít know of what--of what Carol Browner is--Ms. Browner is talking about. There are only two studies on PM 2.5, for example.
MARGARET WARNER: Those are particulates.
C. BOYDEN GRAY: Thatís right. The particulate. There are only two studies that have been conducted. They are quite thin in terms of their research, and we think a lot more work needs to be done, and, in fact, EPA has acknowledged that they need to do work and have said that they have to go abroad to study PM, because the ambient levels of PM, particulate matter, in this country are so relatively low. And we think thereís plenty of time to get this straight. If, for example, on asthmatics, which EPA says is not a problem with PM, particulate matter, itís the problem with ozone, they say, if, in fact, it is outdoor ozone which is causing this, thatís something we can--we have time to find out. But if EPA is wrong about that and the problem relates to indoor air pollution, smoke, cooking, allergens, cockroaches, other things that go on indoors, if thatís the problem, then we will have wasted quite a bit of money, billions of dollars, and about ten or fifteen years when we could have done better for our children. These pollutants, these problems are being driven down very dramatically now under the current Clean Air Act. There is ten years at least to figure out precisely where we should go in the future.
MARGARET WARNER: I want to get back to you, Ms. Browner, but let me just ask Mr. Gray to clarify something for us. Are you saying the science isnít conclusive on the levels of this particulate matter, or ozone, or are you saying the science isnít conclusive about what health effects it has?
C. BOYDEN GRAY: The science isnít conclusive about either, about both. The science is inconclusive. We--on ozone, for example, the science advisory committee has said that they cannot see any significant additional health benefit from reducing a standard--
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get Ms. Browner to respond just to that.
CAROL BROWNER: I think itís important to set the questions here. The science is overwhelming. Sixteen thousand studies were reviewed. The scientific peer review panels agreed that current standards leave far too many Americans at risk. What is at debate, I think the debate here is about who do we protect and what do we protect against. I think some in industry are suggesting that asthma cases made more severe are, quite frankly, not worth protecting against. We donít agree with that. Weíve put forward a proposal that would provide protection to asthmatics, to children, to our seniors, and weíre asking the public to comment on it. But to suggest that the science isnít there I think is really to distort the debate. The debate is about and thereís a public policy debate about who we decide to protect in this country and against what health effects.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you want to weigh back in on that point, or should I go into the cost issue?
C. BOYDEN GRAY: Iíd like to say that if weíre talking about the elderly, for example, take Chicago and the big heat wave two or three summers ago, when Mayor Daley was faced with that, he didnít call up the local utility and tell them to shut their operations, he called them up and said crank it so we can get more air conditioning. If the problem of the elderly has to do with indoor ventilation, fans, air conditioning, heat versus humidity, versus cooler air, we may be diagnosing--may be coming up with a mis-diagnosis here. And since these pollutants again I repeat are all coming down very dramatically and will continue to go down well into the next century, there is time to do more research. There is very little data about PM, fine particulate matter in this country. There are only a handful of monitors throughout the country. We donít know--nobody knows what the ambient levels are in this country and what those ambient levels are doing.
MARGARET WARNER: Tell me this, Ms. Browner, what about the point he made that the Clean Air Act, as it was written, hasnít even been fully complied with? Why wouldnít EPA say, all right, letís fulfill that first and then move on?
CAROL BROWNER: The Act is very clear. Congress has been very specific for the last 26 years. President Bush reaffirmed that commitment. EPA at least every five years determined whether or not the publicís health is being adequately protected. That is what the law says. It says then once youíve made that determination, look at how best to meet the standards. We agree that there are things underway, there are things about to come online that are very important in reducing pollution. We believe that 70 percent of the areas where the air might not meet tougher standards will be able to do so through currently available or about-to-be-available technologies. But I think this argument that somehow or another there arenít studies that we donít know is just confusing the public. The real question is how many asthmatics do we want to protect, how many seniors do we want to protect. EPA has articulated a position, but we are asking for the publicís comment.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mr. Gray, what about the cost issue, how much do you think it would cause for industry to comply with both of these new proposals?
C. BOYDEN GRAY: We havenít had a chance to study the proposals as theyíre just being made today to know exactly how much it will cost, but we do know that the ozone proposal would roughly cost in Chicago alone 3 to 7 billion dollars. And thatís typical for a city of that size. Thatís a lot of money. And that doesnít even get into what the particulate matter rules would cost. Itís very difficult at this point to say what they would cost, but we do know is that utility bills would be higher for individuals, it would be harder to get air conditioning, harder to get heating in the cold winter. But we do know that it would be more expensive. Gasoline, it might be 3 to 5 to 8 cents more per gallon, like a 5 or 8 cent gasoline tax. We know that gasoline is getting cleaner. We have been through one phase of reformulated gasoline which the California Air Resources Board just a month ago said was responsible for reducing ozone, peaks some 40 percent. Phase 2 will kick in, in the next few years, both there and in some other major cities in the United States. Letís let that go into effect and take more time to study what needs to be done after that is completed sometime early next century.
MARGARET WARNER: Whatís your assessment of the cost?
CAROL BROWNER: First of all, I think itís important to understand that some in industry, quite frankly, are putting forward horror stories. Theyíre absolutely positively not true. Thereís a long history under the Clean Air Act of industry, government working together to find common sense cost effective solutions. Every single time we have sought to strengthen the public health protections to reduce air pollution in this country, the actual costs have been far less than anyone projected, including EPA. We project costs on the order of 6 to 8 1/2 billion dollars. We project benefits--benefits--of $120 billion. I think it is important again to understand that this phase of the process is about the publicís health. It is about who we protect and what kind of protection we provide them. That is where the discussion is now. That is what we solicit comment on. We will work with industry to find cost-effective, common sense solutions, as we have done to reduce or ban chlorofluorocarbons, as we have done to address the acid rain problem very successfully.
MARGARET WARNER: Boyden Gray, will the--very briefly before we go, will your industry groups be working with EPA to try to modify these standards, or is your objective to just stop them outright?
C. BOYDEN GRAY: Our objective at the moment is to try to make sure weíre doing the right thing. Thatís what the comment period is about. But, of course, weíll work with EPA; industry always has, and itís always done its best to comply with these rules. My only point is weíre flat out right now trying to meet the current law and will be so flat out well into the next century, and letís try to make sure weíve got it right before we overlay yet another set of requirements.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you, Boyden Gray and Administrator Browner. Thanks for being with us.