EPA ozone proposal threatens Baton Rouge economic growth, business leaders say

NOLA.com / The Times Picayune

Although some environmental activists say the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to toughen standards for ground level ozone could contribute to a healthier Baton Rouge, industry professionals say they pose a threat to the region’s record-breaking economic growth.

EPA is proposing to reduce the 8-hour standard for ground level ozone to between 65 and 70 parts per billion, from the present standard of 75 parts per billion set in 2008 by the Bush administration. The five-parish Baton Rouge area was found in violation of the current standard, which requires a three-year period of being below the 8-hour average, but was declared by EPA to be in attainment of the old standard on Dec. 31, 2013.

If approved after the 90-day comment period, the new standards would require reductions in ozone-creating air pollutants by local industries and businesses. It could also require restrictions in how gasoline and other fuels are sold to the public, and possibly vehicular inspections and other measures. EPA doesn’t expect to release a final version of the rule until October 2015, however, and local industry experts don’t expect it to go into effect for another few years.

Baton Rouge area industry groups say the proposed standards could stunt much-needed growth in the Capital region, which has been led largely by the oil and gas industry.

Business organizations claim the area already meets air quality standards, and would have to stretch to meet stricter guidelines in order to build more projects in the area.

“The Baton Rouge area achieved the current air quality standards, and yet the paucity of available air credits for additional manufacturing projects makes this EPA action very concerning for anyone who wants to see more jobs and investment in our region,” said Adam Knapp, president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

“This proposed action by the EPA threatens to turn back the global competitiveness of south Louisiana for future manufacturing projects. These companies will invest and create their jobs somewhere in the world, but, if this happens, probably not in the U.S.”

Richard Metcalf, director of environmental affairs for the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, said the proposed standards would take the industry back to earlier non-attainment status days, when companies had to offset any potential ozone increase.

Metcalf said the new EPA rule would cause more regional competitiveness. If companies have to spend more to offset the emissions they produce in the Baton Rouge area than New Orleans, for instance, they’d likely opt for the location where they can purchase air credits for a cheaper price, he said.

“That’s a big economic impact on my project before I even start it,” Metcalf said.

Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, said the lowered ozone standards pose a threat to not only the petrochemical industry, for which Baton Rouge is widely known, but also “any company that uses any type of power generators or compressors. They’d probably have to limit the amount of work that they put out. Eventually, their cost increases would get passed onto the taxpayers and consumers.”

Dan Borne’, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, said the proposal hits the reset button on 20 years and millions of dollars of work done to make sure the state was in compliance with EPA standards.

“It’s critical to point out that Louisiana is in compliance with current and past ozone standards, and we’ve made tremendous strides to improve air quality over the last 20 years,” Borne said. “It’s regrettable, after those decades of work, the administration has chosen to move the goalposts.”

Borne’ said it would be difficult to estimate exactly how much business would be lost by the industry if the new rule goes into effect.

“It’s hard to monetize the impact in money and in jobs lost now, because it remains to be seen how much investment might be reduced, deferred or even canceled because of the new standard,” he said.

“We’re certain there will be a lot of analysis of EPA’s scientific assumptions regarding the supposed incremental health benefits the agency suggests would accompany a lower standard, and that ultimately the courts will consider the issue. In the meantime, we’re concentrating on working with LDEQ and EPA on the concept of inter-pollutant or inter-source trading, which would permit industrial areas to use emission reductions from, for example, mobile or marine sources as offsets for point source, or plant emissions. ”

Environmental and health organizations praised the new ozone standard proposal, although at least one complained that the proposal doesn’t go far enough.

“Bring it on. We love it. This is what we need in Louisiana for better health,” said Anne Rolfes, president of the environmental advocacy group the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “I spent a lot of times in neighborhoods that are next to refineries and they’re polluted. These standards will help.”

The American Lung Association, however, expressed disappointment that the proposal doesn’t require the lower 60 ppb standard.

“We are concerned that EPA did not include 60 ppb in the range, though it was the clear recommendation of independent scientists as well as health and medical societies, including the American Lung Association,” said Harold Wimmer, national association president. “The scientific record clearly shows that a standard of 60 ppb would provide the most public health protection. We will continue to push the Agency to adopt standards based on the scientific evidence.

“Thousands of peer-reviewed medical studies show that breathing ozone pollution is dangerous to human health and the EPA review shows harm is occurring at levels far below what is currently considered ‘safe,'” Wimmer said.

The EPA has requested public comment on dropping the standard lower to 60 ppb.

Metcalf says the standard would likely not go into effect for about five or six years after adopting it, going through litigation on both sides of the argument, then seeing the issue through court. The last standard proposed in 1997 wasn’t effective until 2004.

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