EPA NOx Reductions

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Hotline, Fall 1998

Recent action to reduce ozone levels by the Environmental Protection Agency promises to bring much cleaner air to the eastern half of the United States. Enforcement of the EPA decree, however, may face some obstacles.

The EPA ruled September 24 that 22 Eastern and Midwestern states and the District of Columbia, taken together, must reduce nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions by about 28 percent between now and 2007. That would lower NOx emissions in the affected area from an estimated current level of 4.2 million tons down to about 3 million tons. The NOx, together with volatile hydrocarbon emissions, are the main components of ozone, the heart of smog.

The cuts specified by the EPA fall most heavily on states west and south of Pennsylvania. That is good news for western Pennsylvania. This area, like others in Eastern states, has long complained that its difficulty in meeting legal air quality standards–it violated federal air quality standards five times in the summer of 1998–was partly the fault of others. Airborne emissions coming from areas with lower air quality controls, especially those in or near the lower Ohio River Valley, help to build up smog as they drift eastward, especially on hot summer days. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky, and Missouri have all been ordered to cut their NOx emissions by 30 per cent or more, and one state, West Virginia, must cut its emissions by 51 percent.

One striking aspect of the EPA’s action was that it broke new ground in dealing with the movement of air pollution across regional boundaries.

Other news was mixed. The EPA lowered its target for NOx emissions reduction, as suggested in its original proposal in July 1997, by about 12 percent. But it also called for speedy implementation of the specified NOx cuts. Each of the affected states has only until September 1999 to submit a State Implementation Plan (SIP) for reducing its NOx emissions and until 2003 to put new emission controls in place.

The new standards drew praise, some of it cautious, from different quarters in Pennsylvania. GASP welcomed the EPA decree. April Linton, speaking for the state Department of Environmental Protection, called it a good first step, and predicted that Pennsylvania public utilities would be able to make the needed cuts in emissions. But Roger Westman, manager of the Allegheny County Health Department’s Air Quality Program, was less optimistic that Pennsylvania would be able to easily meet the requirement of reducing its NOx emissions by 24 percent. And Harold Miller, director of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Growth Alliance, while welcoming the EPA’s action to limit pollution being sent here by states to the west, warned that the new regulations might slow economic growth in Pennsylvania.

However, many complaints have come from those states which will be required to cut NOx emissions the most, and from large polluters, such as electric power companies and certain other large industries. Such companies are almost certain to be targeted for drastic NOx reductions. They are the largest sources of such pollution, and individual states, in preparing their plans for achieving the reductions specified for them by the EPA, will find it easiest to make big reductions by coming down hard on major polluters operating at a relatively few sources.

But those big polluters, who carry political and economic weight in their localities, are already in action to water down the EPA requirements on reductions of NOx emissions and speed of attainment. For example, a group of governors and Congressmen from the Midwest and other areas, tried unsuccessfully to get the EPA to compromise on utilities’ expected burden of cutting NOx emissions. Some states’ electrical power generators, for example, faced with having to reduce their emissions by more than 80 percent, have called for lower targets and a longer period to attain them. And some power industry organizations have threatened lawsuits against the EPA action.

The outcome of the 1998 Congressional elections will no doubt have some influence on these disputes, for it is likely that opponents of the EPA decree will seek relief through Congressional action as well as at law, and some delays in implementing the new regulations may come as a result. Perhaps, however, the outcome of the Presidential election in the year 2000 may be even more influential, in the sense that the personnel and policies of the EPA could change in the direction of weakened enforcement of clean air rules.

by David Fowler, GASP Board Member