Cutting Through the Smog

New research highlights the importance of reducing ozone pollution and suggests ways to do it.

As a change of pace, here’s a post that’s not about Trump, Pruitt, or their friends in Congress.  Two recent papers highlight the importance of EPA’s tightening of the air quality standard for ozone and suggest some ways of doing so that could be more acceptable to industry. (We’re talking about ground-level smog here, not the ozone layer high above the earth.) The Obama Administration issued regulations two years ago tightening the air quality standard for ozone. Industry attacked the rule as unnecessary and impractical, but these two papers seems to point in the opposite direction.  They emphasize the health benefits of reducing ozone and suggest some ways of doing so at lower cost.

The first paper is by three economists: Olivier Deschenes at UCSB, Michael Greenstone at Chicago, and Joseph Shapiro at Yale, with an assist from Berkeley’s Energy Institute at Haas School of Business. It’s a very ingenious study of how changes in regulations for NOx (nitrogen oxides) impacted health by reducing ozone levels.  (Ground level ozone is formed when volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, and sunlight come together.) The study focuses on a NOx emissions trading program, which ran only in summers and only in some regions from 2003-2008.  This provided plenty of comparisons for determining how much the program cut ozone (quite a lot) and the program’s health effects.  Previous studies had looked at hospitalizations and ER visits, but these researchers were able to access data on individual medication use, which allowed them to track purchases of asthma medications.  (This required use of a proprietary database of individual drug purchases, so EPA would probably not be able to rely on this study if the House’s latest legislation on the subject were law.) Here are the major conclusions:

  • The program reduced ozone by an average of 6% but also eliminated a third of the high ozone days in the summers.
  • This reduced medication costs by $800 million per year.
  • The program also eliminated 2200 premature deaths each summer.

EPA’s analysis of its regulation emphasized the health benefits of cutting particulates (a side-effect of cutting NOx), but it appears that the ozone benefits are also quite substantial.

The second paper is about how to achieve the new ozone standard.  It’s by Art Fraas (a visiting fellow at my favorite think tank, Resources for the Future), John Graham (who headed OIRA under Bush), and Jeff Holmstead (an energy industry lawyer).  They present some ideas for making it easier to open new industrial facilities while complying with the ozone standard.  Two of their proposals caught my attention.  The first is to modify air quality monitoring to take into account that all NOx sources probably won’t be at peak production at exactly the same time.  The other is to change the offset program so that, where offsets aren’t available, new sources can pay emissions fees into a fund for reducing ozone emissions.  Since ozone precursors also come from vehicles, funding programs to reduce vehicle use or take more polluting vehicles off the road could be effective with additional funding.  Obviously, the devil is in the details, but on the face of it, these proposals seem constructive and worth discussion, which is encouraging at a time when political discourse seems so polarized.

A challenge to the new ozone standard is still pending in the D.C. Circuit.  Let’s hope the court upholds the standard.  EPA should be thinking about ways to reduce compliance costs, but the standard itself seems more than worthwhile.  Fortunately, the American Lung Association is an intervenor in the case and can defend the Obama standard if even if the Trump Administration decides not to.



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Reader Comments

13 Replies to “Cutting Through the Smog”

  1. Dan, how can we accomplish anything as long as:

    The UN has totally failed to produce world peace,

    Our politicians refuse to end inequalities, and

    Global warming is totally out of our control because President Eisenhower’s conclusion in his 1961 Farewell Address was: “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.”

    Which all agrees with Will and Ariel Durant’s paramount lesson in history, that civilizations fail because politicians and intellectuals fail to protect the human race, and today, since global warming is out of control, politicians and intellectuals are threatening the entire human race with total destruction.

    1. Legal Planet, do UC professors have solutions to these problems so we can prevent global warming from destroying quality of life for our newest and all future generations?

      1. Anthony,
        Good news, California just raised taxes on gasoline by $0.12/gal. This should motivate the public to use less fossil fuel and thereby reduce toxic carbon dioxide emissions and prevent global warming from destroying the quality of life for future generations. We are grateful to Governor Brown for this clever innovation.

        1. BQRQ, I must admit that I find it hard to decide what group to get angrier at, the republicans who cause the problems or the scholars and democrats who watch, lecture and do nothing to prevent them.

          Which is also, most obviously, the reason Trump was elected.

      2. Thanks for your comments, Anthony. Our legal academics’ solutions are proposed in several forms, aside from the more traditional publication in academic journals. We submit amicus briefs to educate courts and we publish other written products to educate policymakers (you can find those products on our websites and on Google, and we’ve promoted some of them on this blog); we also speak and write for multiple audiences, including the general public, business leaders, journalists, and policymakers, among others. To take one example, Ann Carlson co-authored a policy paper – which was written about on this blog – that made the first serious effort to explain how the US could use Section 115 of the Clean Air Act to address climate change, and various Democratic legislators as well as the Secretary of State’s office in the Obama administration took an interest in those efforts. To take another, UCLA and UC Berkeley Law’s joint project the California Climate Change and Business Initiative, directed by fellow Legal Planet blogger Ethan Elkind, proposes policy solutions to reduce greenhouse gases in multiple business sectors in California, some of which have been adopted and implemented. (Our more traditional academic work itself has been influential; for example, Ann Carlson’s academic work was cited by the Vermont court that approved states’ authority to regulate mobile source greenhouse gas emissions more stringently than the federal government.) And the whole point of this blog is for us to be “public” with our ideas, as the statement from Nicholas Dirks that you cite in another comment here (and have cited many times before) advises.

        In addition to our legal and policy work, I see academic scientists and social scientists working every day on important research to better understand the causes and impacts of climate change, and to develop solutions to climate change, and to publicize their research and make it accessible to policymakers, the private sector, and the public. For example, virtually all the IPCC contributors, and the researchers whose work is cited in the IPCC assessments (cited in the California alumni magazine article that you often cite), are academic researchers. As another example, UC researchers’ ideas resulted directly in the development of the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which is one of the more promising policies for reducing greenhouse gases in the transportation sector. Academic research at our institutions also is at the cutting edge of development of alternative energy methods, and UC economists have helped to analyze, document, and communicate the value of climate change solutions. Finally, there are academics who specialize in communications who focus on more effectively communicating about climate change to the public and to policymakers.

        I’ve noticed that you have frequently made comments suggesting that academics are responsible for not solving the problem of climate change, and even accusing us of refusing to do so. Your stance on this confuses me. The necessary change in our energy systems will happen only through political action at every level of governance. California is a leader, thanks to our unique political discourse here (and as noted above, academics have helped with it too). While academic efforts have not yet succeeded in motivating sound public policy at the national level, surely, we are not ultimately responsible for the election of a Congress – and now a President – that oppose action on climate change. If anything, events suggest that, as chronicled in the “Can We Adapt in Time?” article you cite, many Americans are not persuaded despite the efforts of a vocal consensus of academic researchers who have made their views very well-known on the subject in public forums – and this dynamic is getting worse over time, in part because of well-funded disinformation campaigns.

        I’m sure we could do better, of course. Given your apparent view that academics or “intellectuals,” along with politicians, are especially responsible for the failure so far to address climate change effectively, maybe you can elaborate more specifically on what else you think we ought to be doing. I can’t promise to adopt or respond to all your ideas, but will certainly read and consider any suggestions you have.

  2. For years I have wondered why environmental groups can’t save our environment so that our newest and all future generations can have at least the same quality of life we have today.

    I have come up with at least three root causes:

    1. The grave warning by President Eisenhower that I discussed above.

    2. A statement by Nicholas Dirks who quoted Richard Hofstadter: “— so many intellectuals don’t want to take on the sort of complications and impurities that come with being public.”

    3. As documented by evolutionary biologists in a 2006 CALIFORNIA alumni magazine cover story “Can We Adapt in Time”

    Increasingly out of control climate changes are turning these explanations into a tragedy for the human race.

    I respect the dedication and efforts of Legal Planet contributors, but we must find a better way to motivate our social, political and economic institutions to save our environment in time.

    1. The sound of silence on the blogs (LP, BB, and CALMAG) I have posted these comments on tell me loud and clear that there is no hope.

      Our best and brightest have no solutions that can be implemented in time, and our failure to achieve.Teller’s prediction for fusion power production by the end of the 20th century to save the human race is still an impossible dream.

        1. Thank you for your awesome response Prof. Hecht, far better than anything I have ever said, I greatly appreciate and respect the efforts you made to produce it.

          First, I am looking for a better way to influence public opinion and motivate actions to protect our planet and civilization today, just as you are making every effort to accomplish, which is especially imperative in this new Age of Trump that has no respect for the long-term future quality of life of the human race.

          Second, I believe that you and your UC colleagues are the most qualified people for accomplishing this task, which is really why I keep trying on various UC related blogs.

          For what it is worth, I am 80 years old, and I have two young granddaughters that motivate me weekly when my 1963 Cal classmate-wife and I spend the day with them, including taking one of both of them to the San Diego Zoo and botanical garden for over seven years now. Since I retired in 1999 I have spent a great deal of time studying subjects that I never had an opportunity to study before I retired, subjects such as environmental science and social sciences in order to make every effort I can to produce and perpetuate an acceptable quality of life for them and all children around the world into the long-term future.

          What I am for asking most of all is Help!

          1. Thanks, Anthony. I don’t despair, but I share your view that our country is very much going on the wrong direction and not enough is being done. I believe we have the knowledge base to solve our environmental challenges, but we don’t have the political will. I certainly don’t see us in academia as heroes or saviors, but we contribute where we can. Thanks as always for reading the blog and for your comments.

  3. Prof. Hecht (and all UC professors and scholars), in conclusion, we must find a way to focus at least one entire UC campus on protecting and perpetuating the human race with an acceptable quality of life.

    In the meantime, we must focus on implementing “a better way to influence public opinion and motivate actions to protect our planet and civilization today.”

    1. P.S. Since you asked me to “elaborate more specifically on what else you think we ought to be doing” I would suggest we consider a nationally televised panel, including recognized political and intellectual experts such as:

      Rachel Maddow – Host
      Shepard Smith – Host
      Michelle Obama
      Bill McKibben
      Robert Reich
      Elizabeth Warren
      Republican politician of their choice

      1. Prof. Hecht, what we have just confirmed, again, is that we are not wired to save us from ourselves.

        Even if we could come up with a solutions to protect our planet and civilization, we can’t implement them.

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more