Ozone rules: Political expedience cannot be the only consideration in controlling pollutant

Smog envelopes Shiprock in New Mexico. Pollution from coal-fired powerplants, oil and gas fields, and vehicles is prompting stricter air-quality standards nationwide from the EPA. Enlargephoto

Credit: EcoFlight, Jane Pargiter

Smog envelopes Shiprock in New Mexico. Pollution from coal-fired powerplants, oil and gas fields, and vehicles is prompting stricter air-quality standards nationwide from the EPA.

In June, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the Trump administration would give states an extra year to comply stricter ozone standards enacted by the Obama administration in 2015. On Aug. 2, Pruitt again reversed course, saying the rule would take effect after all. That’s good news for people who breathe. It’s also good for our tourism economy dependent upon clear skies and viewsheds.

The issue is tremendously complicated. Ozone in the stratosphere provides a shield from ultraviolet radiation. That beneficial ozone layer has been partially destroyed by manmade chemicals, although the hole in the ozone layer is shrinking.

At ground level, ozone is a harmful pollutant that can trigger a variety of health problems, especially for children, the elderly, and people of all ages who have asthma or other lung diseases. Ground-level ozone occurs when pollutants emitted by cars, industrial plants and other sources — in this region, particularly coal-fired power plants — chemically react in the presence of sunlight. The result is smog.

But, in another layer of complexity, ozone targets are more difficult to meet for high-elevations cities, including Colorado’s Front Range, and in desert states like Arizona with a high level of naturally occurring ozone. Wind can move ozone over long distances.

Enforcing any ozone standard primarily involves punitive actions such as fines for cities and states where the limit is exceeded. Pruitt said he would work with officials in those places

When the Obama administration tightened the ozone limit, a coalition of states and industry leaders filed suit. When the Trump administration delayed implementation, a coalition of different states and environmental organizations filed suit. Throughout that process, the concept of protecting Americans from air pollution without crippling industry and eliminating jobs has been a political football, kicked back and forth.

Under Obama, EPA officials believed that ground-level ozone could be reduced through sensible measures. President Donald Trump, however, opposes almost any government action that could reduce employment or industry profitability and has shown little interest in, or even acknowledgment of, related problems. He has promised to bring back coal, and that goal simply is not compatible with ozone reductions.

This isn’t the way environmental protections should be handled. How refreshing it would be if both parties brought the concerns of their political bases to the table with scientists who actually understand the problem, which is not as intractable as it lately has seemed.

Balance can be found, if enough stakeholders are interested in trying.