On September 2, 2011, the Obama administration rescinded an EPA proposal to tighten standards on ozone in the atmosphere at ground level1. This proposal would have:
- Lowered the maximum allowable concentration of ground-level ozone from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to 70 ppb2. This is the primary standard whose purpose is to safeguard human health.
- Introduced a secondary standard based on a cumulative total of ozone exposure, 13 parts per million-hours (ppm-hour) in a three month period2. One ppm-hour is the exposure one receives from breathing an atmosphere of 1 ppm ozone for one hour. Two ppm-hours is the exposure of 1 ppm for 2 hours or 2 ppm for 1 hour. The purpose of the secondary standard is to protect property, quality of life, and wildlife habitat.
The question we want to consider is: Did it serve the public interest to rescind the proposed regulation or would it have been better to allow the regulation to become law? Does the benefit that the regulation provides the public outweigh the costs or vice versa?
Some might argue that a regulation that is shown to save lives offers a benefit that outweighs all costs, but that isn’t necessarily true. We put a finite price on human life all the time: insurance companies, the courts, the medical profession, governments. To show why we must do this, ask yourself this question: suppose a single person was in grave danger but could be rescued for a billion dollars. Should the government pay a billion dollars to rescue that individual? There is a raging debate how about much money to spend on medical care for the poor at a cost much less than a billion dollars per life. There are limits to how much we can spend to rescue people, especially when the costs can affect the business and economic climate3.
Another example: suppose we want to institute environmental regulation X. X will save the lives of 1000 people but will cause 10,000 people to be laid off from their jobs. Is it worth it? What if it will save the lives of 5,000 people? 10,000 people? 100,000 people? What if X will reduce tax revenues needed for schools, sanitation, police and fire services? When the question is phrased as a matter of extremes (X will save a million lives at an economic cost of ten million dollars, or X will save a handful of lives but will wreak economic havoc), most of us would find the question easy to answer. But when the costs and benefits are more balanced, that’s when it becomes tricky.
Of course, saving lives are not the only benefits of environmental regulations4. Tougher ozone standards promise to reduce the amount and severity of respiratory illness5, even to increase general wellness, helping to keep our lung function from deteriorating over long periods of time. The atheletes among us will be able to retain their abilities longer, but even ordinary people may be able to retain their vigor longer into their old age.
Lower ozone levels could particularly benefit those with pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema5. While people with these conditions represent just a fraction of the population, they still deserve our consideration. We have a legislative precedent: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has made life easier for millions of people6. If we demand accommodations for the blind, the deaf, and wheelchair-bound, we should also make accommodation for those with breathing difficulties.
There are also economic benefits from tougher ozone standards. If even low concentrations of ozone make some people ill, then maintaining lower concentrations will mean less illness. That means lower health care costs, less productivity lost at work, less absences at school. Ozone also damages plant life7; lower ozone levels will benefit agriculture as well as protect other forms of property (ozone is murder on certain types of rubber8). Less tangible is the damage that can be prevented to our national parks and other wildlife habitat.
On the other hands, there could be substantial costs. Ozone is not emitted directly by industry but is formed from other chemicals released into the air9. To reduce ozone, industry (as well as private cars and trucks) must curtail these emissions, and that can be expensive. If the costs are too great, companies will become less profitable, will need to cut back on hiring, will yield less tax revenue, may be tempted to move to other jurisdictions with less onerous regulation. The EPA is prohibited by law from allowing cost considerations to influence its decision to impose new and stricter regulations10. But we are not so prohibited, and we need to weigh costs against benefits to determine how society’s interests are best served.
- Statement by the President on the Ozone National Ambient Air Qualities Standards. White House website. To view, click here.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Ambient Air Quality Standards, 2010, p. 1. To view the document, click here.
- A related concept is the value of statistical life (VSL), which is a measure of how much people are willing to pay for reduction of danger to life. For a discussion on determining VSL in three provinces in China, see the paper The Value of Statistical Life by Jie He and Hua Wong, World Bank eLibrary, which you can view by clicking here. See also the Wikipedia article Value of Life which you can view by clicking here.
- For discussions of mortality associated with ozone exposure, see the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Integrated Science Assessment for Ozone and Related Photochemical Oxidants, Second External Draft, September 2011, Sections 2.6.2, 6.6, 7.4.10, and 7.7. To view the document, click here, then click the button “Get the Report.”
- For discussions of health conditions associated with ozone exposure, see the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Integrated Science Assessment for Ozone and Related Photochemical Oxidants, Second External Draft, September 2011, Sections 2.6, 6.2 through 6.5, and 7.3 through 7.6. To view the document, click here, then click the button “Get the Report.”
- For discussions of the effect of ozone on lung health, see the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Integrated Science Assessment for Ozone and Related Photochemical Oxidants, Second External Draft, September 2011, Sections 6.2 and 7.2. To view the document, click here, then click the button “Get the Report.”
- The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission maintains a website with a good summary of the ADA, which you can view by clicking here.
- For discussions of the effect of ozone on vegetation and the environment, see the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Integrated Science Assessment for Ozone and Related Photochemical Oxidants, Second External Draft, September 2011, Sections 2.7 and 9. To view the document, click here, then click the button “Get the Report.”
- See my post “EPA’s New Ozone Rule, Part 4” which you can view by clicking here.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Ambient Air Quality Standards, 2010, p. 9. To view the document, click here.
Actually, this prohibition is not actually stated by the Clean Air Act, but has been inferred by the courts. It is based on Section 109 of the Clean Air Act (United States Code, Title 42, Section 7409, which you can read by clicking here) which states in subsection (b)(1): “National primary ambient air quality standards…based on such criteria and allowing an adequte margin of safety, are requisite to protect the public health.” Similarly, it states in subsection (b)(2): Any national secondary ambient air quality standard…is requisite to protect the public welfare from any known or anticipated adverse effects associated with the presence of such air pollutant in the ambient air.” The Supreme Court in its ruling in the case Whitman v. American Trucking Associations, Inc. (which you can read by clicking here) inferred from the lack of mention of cost as a criteria in determining NAAQS that cost was excluded. This is because in other places, the Clean Air Act explicitly does allow cost as a criteria. As an Orthodox Jew, I take great pleasure from this argument — it could have come straight from the Talmud.