Biden administration strengthens limits on soot pollution despite industry objection

Feb. 7, 2024
The Biden administration on Feb. 7 lowered the national annual ambient air quality standards for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) to 9 micrograms/cu m.

The Biden administration on Feb. 7 lowered the national annual ambient air quality standards for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) to 9 micrograms/cu m from the current 12 micrograms/cu m, despite warnings from industry groups that the rule could obliterate manufacturing jobs across the country.

Particulate matter, often called soot, is a common emission from refineries and petrochemical plants, and it can be emitted wherever fossil fuels are burned, such as from diesel-fired generators at oil and gas drilling sites.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that the updated standards would prevent up to 4,500 premature deaths and 290,000 lost workdays, yielding up to $46 billion in health benefits in 2032. PM2.5 are tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter that can penetrate the lungs and can lead to asthma and heart disease.

“This final air quality standard will save lives and make all people healthier, especially within America’s most vulnerable and overburdened communities,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan in a statement. Today’s rule affects only annual health-based standards. The primary 24-hour PM2.5 standard remains unchanged at 35 micrograms/cu m.

Industry, specifically petroleum, metals, mining and forest and paper, have urged the EPA not to issue the rule (OGJ Online, Feb. 6, 2023).

“[T]oday’s announcement is the latest in a growing list of short-sighted policy actions that have no scientific basis and prioritize foreign energy and manufacturing from unstable regions of the world over American jobs, manufacturing, and national security,” the American Petroleum Institute (API) said in a statement.

API said the rule would “create new permitting challenges while jeopardizing nearly $200 billion in economic activity and as many as one million jobs.” Most PM2.5 emissions originate from “non-point sources” such as wildfires and road dust, while industrial sources account for less than 7%, API added.

EPA rejected claims the rule would hurt the economy, noting that since 2000, fine particle pollution has fallen 42% while gross domestic product climbed 52%. Compliance costs are a tiny fraction of the benefit value, the agency added.

In October 2023, over 60 organizations representing petroleum, metals, mining and forest and paper as well as the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), warned the White House that lowering the PM2.5 standard would make it “even more difficult to obtain permits for new factories, facilities and infrastructure to power economic growth.”

The groups added that the permitting problems would extend to climate-friendly infrastructure, and that the rule “would create a perverse disincentive for American investment. The EPA’s proposal could force investment in new facilities to foreign countries with less stringent air standards, thereby undermining the administration’s economic and environmental goals.”

Litigation is possible. In 2013, when EPA cut the annual PM2.5 standard from 15 micrograms/cu m to 12 micrograms/cu m, industry groups led by NAM sued over the rule (OGJ Online, June 25, 2012). EPA won the case and lowered the standard. API, in its press release, said it would consider all options after reviewing the rule.

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