September 28, 2011 — Are clean air protections and job growth at odds in a tough economy? The latest Harvard School of Public Health Forum took on the issues raised by President Obama’s surprise September 2, 2011, request that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson withdraw draft air quality standards that would have tightened ozone pollution controls. The president cited the need to reduce regulatory burdens, echoing industry complaints that the high cost of complying with the new standards would hurt jobs. Public health experts and environmental advocates decried the decision, raising concerns that it leaves in place standards that are not sufficiently protective to children, seniors, and others vulnerable to cardiovascular and respiratory problems.
HSPH Prof. Douglas Dockery, chair of the Department of Environmental Health, opened the September 21, 2011, panel discussion by providing background on the science. A key component of smog, ozone is one of six pollutants regulated by the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards. High ozone days have been linked to asthma attacks, cardiac arrests, and premature deaths. Standards regulating acceptable levels are reviewed every five years by a scientific advisory panel.
Panelist Rogene Henderson chaired the 2008 EPA scientific advisory panel, which recommended that ozone limits be tightened to between 60-70 parts per billion (ppb). Instead, Stephen Johnson, head of the EPA at that time, lowered the limits to 75-84 ppb.
Despite this resistance, Henderson stood by her panel’s findings. “If you try to hedge [scientific advice] so that it is politically acceptable, then your advice is of no value,” she said.
Johnson’s move was met by legal challenges from environmental advocates. Upon taking office the following year, Administrator Lisa Jackson moved ahead with plans to adopt the stricter standards recommended by the panel.
Roger McClellan, who also chaired a past EPA Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, defended the president’s decision. With standards potentially changing again after the next five-year review in 2013, introducing new rules now would be overly burdensome and confusing, he argued.
John Walke, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, maintained that the Obama decision was not legally defensible. By law, the EPA’s clean air standards must be based only on the best available science. Economic arguments should not be a factor, Walke said.
Economist W. David Montgomery argued that ozone standards have become tight enough already that future reductions will be too small to generate sufficient improvements in health outcomes to justify the cost.
Henderson said that health and economic considerations do not need to be mutually exclusive. Industry is innovative and will clean up when challenged by scientifically based regulation, she said.
Ultimately, decisions regarding standards are not up to scientists and will always be balanced with economic realities, McClellan said. “The answer to the question of how low is low enough is a policy judgment to be made by an elected or appointed official guided by the best scientific advice available,” he said.
Cristine Russell, a science journalist and fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, moderated the lively debate.
Watch a webcast of the event.