Polluting industries say the cost of cleaner air is too high
By Lydia DePillis
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is about to announce new regulations governing soot — the particles that trucks, farms, factories, wildfires, power plants and dusty roads generate. By law, the agency isn’t supposed to consider the impact on polluting industries. In practice, it does — and those industries are warning of dire economic consequences.
Under the Clean Air Act, every five years, the EPA reexamines the science around several harmful pollutants. Fine particulate matter is extremely dangerous when it percolates into human lungs, and the law has driven a vast decline in concentrations in areas such as Los Angeles and the Ohio Valley.
But technically, there is no safe level of particulate matter, and ever-spreading wildfire smoke driven by a changing climate and decades of forest mismanagement has reversed recent progress. The Biden administration decided to short-circuit the review cycle after the EPA in the Trump administration concluded that no change was needed. As the decision nears, business groups are ramping up resistance.
Last month, a coalition of major industries, including mining, oil and gas, manufacturing, and timber, sent a letter to the White House chief of staff, Jeffrey Zients, warning that “no room would be left for new economic development” in many areas if the EPA went ahead with a standard as tough as it was contemplating, endangering the manufacturing recovery that President Joe Biden had pushed with laws funding climate action and infrastructure investment.
Twenty years ago, generating electric power caused far higher soot emissions, so “there was room” to tighten air quality standards, Chad Whiteman, vice president of environment and regulatory affairs at the Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, said in an interview. “Now, we’re down to the point where the costs are extremely high,” he said, “and you start bumping into unintended consequences.”
Research shows that in the first decades after the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1967, the rules lowered output and employment, as well as productivity, in pollution-intensive industries. That’s why the cost of those rules has often drawn industry protests. This time, steel and aluminum producers have voiced particularly strong objections, with one company predicting that a tighter standard would “greatly diminish the possibility” that it could restart a smelter in Kentucky that it idled in 2022 because of high energy prices.
New factories, however, tend to have much more effective pollution control systems. That’s especially true for two advanced manufacturing industries that the Biden administration has specifically encouraged: semiconductors and solar panel manufacturing. Trade associations for those industries said by email that a lower standard for particulate matter wasn’t a significant concern.
Regardless, public health advocates argue that the averted deaths, illnesses and lost productivity that air pollution caused far outweigh the cost. The EPA pegs the potential benefits at as much as $55 billion by 2032 if it drops the limit to 9 micrograms per cubic meter, from the current 12 micrograms. That is far more than the $500 million it estimates the proposal would cost in 2032.
So, how are communities weighing the potential trade-offs?
On a state level, it depends, to a large degree, on politics: Seventeen Democratic attorneys general wrote a joint comment letter in support of stricter rules, while 17 Republican attorneys general wrote one in favor of the status quo.
But it also depends on the mix of industries prevalent in a local area. Ohio offers an illuminating contrast.
Take Columbus, a long-standing hub of headquarters for consumer brands that in recent years has leaned more into professional services such as banking and insurance. The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, a coalition of metropolitan-area governments, called for the EPA to impose the 9-microgram standard.
“There may be some economic costs to major polluting industries, but there’s real health and environmental costs if we do nothing,” said Brandi Whetstone, a sustainability officer at the commission.
Columbus would incur fewer costs from tighter regulation, having enjoyed strong job growth in recent years driven by white-collar industries. But local leaders also think that clean air is a competitive advantage, with the power to draw both new residents and new businesses that value it.
Jim Schimmer, director of economic development for Franklin County, which includes Columbus, has been pushing a plan to turn an old airport that the county owns into a low-emissions, power-generating transportation and logistics hub, complete with solar arrays and electrified short-haul trucks, and he thinks stronger rules on particulate matter could help.
“This is such a great opportunity for us,” Schimmer said.
The Cleveland area is a different story, with a high concentration of steel, chemical, aviation and machinery production. Its regional planning council declined to comment on the prospect of stricter air quality rules. Chris Ronayne, the Democratic executive of Cuyahoga County, was cautious in discussing the subject, emphasizing the need for financial assistance to help companies upgrade to lower their emissions.
Public health advocates argue that the EPA should set its standard regardless of the assistance available to cover the cost of compliance.
California, for example, has spent more than $10 billion to help factories and farmers pollute less. It is the only state with areas in “serious” violation of meeting the set standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter. The country’s six most polluted counties, which include the cities of Fresno and Bakersfield, have annual readings above 16 micrograms.
Here’s one point of agreement between proponents and many foes of a stronger standard: If the EPA moves forward with tougher rules, it should also crack down on pollution sources, including railroads, ships and airplanes, under its sole jurisdiction. (The agency has proposed a stronger standard for heavy-duty trucks, around which a similar fight is playing out.)
Rebecca Maurer is a City Council member representing a Cleveland neighborhood that has some of the area’s worst pollution. Her office frequently hears from constituents seeking help with housing that is safer for children with asthma, which occurs at alarming rates. The district encompasses an industrial cluster that includes two steel plants, an asphalt plant, a recycling depot, rail yards and assorted small factories.
That’s the most visible source of emissions, but Maurer thinks her district’s many highways — and the diesel-powered trucks driving on them — offer the greatest opportunity for cleaning the air, which requires state and federal action. And light manufacturing jobs are needed to employ the two-thirds of the county’s residents who lack college degrees, she said.
“What we don’t want is another asphalt plant, and we don’t want e-commerce,” Maurer said. “We want something in between. We’re trying to thread this needle between these hugely polluting plants and low density, low-wage warehouse jobs.”