Rice University Professor: New EPA Ozone Rule ‘Impossible’ to Attain in DFW and Houston

In October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set more stringent ground-level ozone regulations, dropping the standard from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to 70 ppb. Five parts per billion might not seem like much, but as EID has previously stated, the costs associated with meeting this new standard could be enormous. This is especially true for cities falling under nonattainment, or those not able to meet the 70 ppb standard by 2025.

In a recent op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, Dr. Daniel Cohan, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University, called into question the feasibility of attaining the EPA’s new ozone standard. Dr. Cohan comes to a similar conclusion EID raised to EPA regulators almost a year ago – the new standard of 70 ppb is virtually impossible to attain by 2025 for many cities (specifically DFW and Houston). A nonattainment designation would mean costly regulatory conflict and litigation, and additional pain for regional economies. As Cohan states:

“While there is an achievable path to reduce the worst of these health hazards, it is also true that the EPA’s new 70 ppb standard will prove impossible to attain by 2025 in several regions — including Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston.”(Emphasis added)

There is no doubt the new EPA ozone standards are severe – even several national parks will not meet the new standard. In fact, EPA itself admits California will need until at least 2032 to meet the 70 ppb ruling.  But EPA refuses to acknowledge the difficulties other states face in trying to meet the standard, arguing that attainment should be possible in the “vast majority” of the United States by 2025.

Dr. Cohan disagrees:

“[The EPA] acknowledges that parts of California will need extra time to reach the 70 ppb standard. However, EPA claims all other states can achieve 70 ppb by 2025 or sooner. After reading the EPA’s own analysis, I don’t believe attainment that soon is possible.” (Emphasis added)

Cohan explains why meeting the new ozone standard may prove to be impossible, focusing on its emissions reduction requirements that are “unfathomably large”:

“But these tonnages of emission reductions are unfathomably large for eastern Texas to achieve in ten years. Where could these cuts of 123,000 tons of NOx and 20,000 tons of VOC possibly come from? They can’t come entirely from industry.” (Emphasis added)

Additionally, as Cohan notes, making what may appear to be modest reductions in ozone concentrations could require draconian limitations on economic activity – and even those might not fully address the problem:

“In other words, it takes a much larger percentage reductions in emissions of precursor gases, NOx and hydrocarbons, to achieve a given percentage reduction in ozone. One recent study found several U.S. cities would need NOx reductions of more than 70 percent to attain 70 ppb ozone


A substantial amount of ozone comes from sources that cannot be controlled: biogenic hydrocarbons and NOx, lightning, international emissions, stratospheric ozone intrusions, and so forth” (emphasis added).

EPA’s Larger Problem

As Cohan points out, this push for an impossible regulatory standard is indicative of a much larger problem within the EPA: the agency acts to create health standards based on solely on health, not feasibility or affordability. By law, the EPA can only consider health in setting ozone standards, which allows the EPA, in effect, to dismiss economic concerns with its air quality regulations.

Admittedly, basing health standards on health is, in principal, perfectly reasonable. However, as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) argues, narrowly focusing on direct health criteria while ignoring the relative health factors associated with feasibility or affordability — such as loss of employment — is problematic. Factors such as unemployment, for example, could have a far larger impact on health than those associated with slightly higher ozone levels, according to the TCEQ.

So, for the EPA to enact the new standard without full consideration of health risks – both direct and indirect – is an alarming prospect. This is especially true considering a significant portion of the United States, which will now be considered in nonattainment (see map below), could “suffer stringent penalties” if the new standard is not reached, including:

“(1) EPA overriding states on permitting decisions; (2) new facilities and major modifications having to install the most effective emission reduction technologies without consideration of cost; and (3) federally supported highway and transportation projects being suspended.”

EID ozone post

Since the new ozone regulations were proposed by the EPA, many argued the lower standard would be extremely difficult and costly to meet, especially on the energy industry. Now that the standard has been tightened to 70 ppb, the question is no longer “how,” but “if” attainment will be possible by the 2025 deadline. As Dr. Cohan has explained, slapping industry with even more controls may not actually lead to attainment, which will leave American workers with fewer job opportunities, while failing to deliver the health “benefits” that EPA promised.

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