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Interstate Rule Is One Fix in Thicket of Upwind Pollution Woes

March 18, 2021, 10:01 AM

Revising interstate pollution rules should be the first of many punches in the Biden administration’s fight against upwind pollution that wrecks U.S. air quality, clean air experts say.

The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule update, released Monday, is the Environmental Protection Agency’s first environmental rulemaking under President Joe Biden. But environmental groups say it’s among a host of task items left for the administration’s air list, which includes reviewing a backlog of state pollution plans.

“It’s directionally positive and helpful, of course,” said John Walke, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council and its clean air director. “But it’s also well over a decade overdue.”

The interstate pollution rule aims to mitigate traveling toxic emissions that are blown from upwind states’ power plants and into the air spaces of downwind states mostly in the Northeast.

“This rule is often referred to as the ‘Good Neighbor Rule’ and for good reason,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement lauding the update. “Over 90 percent of Delaware’s air pollution comes from sources outside the state.”

Proposals Rejected

The Obama and Trump administrations proposed updating the rule in 2016 and 2019, respectively, to help states meet 2008 National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone in the summer months. But federal judges shot down both proposals, saying they fell short of stemming smog pollution within legal deadlines.

The EPA’s final update did at least meet expectations in terms of what was achievable under such a tight deadline, according to John Bachmann, former associate director for science, policy and new programs at the EPA’s air office.

He welcomed the EPA’s update, saying issues such as climate change—even with emissions reductions—will exacerbate smog that proliferates in hotter summers.

“In the long run, it’s possible more is going to be needed,” Bachmann said.

Further Analysis

The agency should prioritize gathering more information about how other heavy industrial facilities could be included in emission reduction requirements, said Paul Miller, executive director of Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM), a nonprofit association of air quality agencies.

“The disappointment is the past history of multiple transport rules that never fully addressed transport ozone and its precursors,” Miller said.

That includes carrying out an analysis of how non-power plant sources—like cement kilns and waste incinerators—could also reduce their NOx outputs, he said.

What’s more, the EPA “still has not acted on state submissions for how they will deal with ozone transport related to the 2015 standard,” Walke said.

A coalition of air and green groups such as Air Alliance Houston and Earthjustice put the EPA on notice earlier this month by filing an intent to sue over its backlog of state implementation plan approvals for ozone.

“Communities are expecting more going forward from an administration that has promised to address environmental injustice,” Earthjustice attorney Kathleen Riley said in a statement. “We are encouraging the administration to achieve greater pollution reductions under the more protective 2015 ozone standard.”

‘Responsive’ to Concerns

Still, Biden’s update helps fill the gaps that courts said made previous iterations of the rule untenable, including requiring more emission reduction efforts from the 12 regulated states.

Those reductions hinge on those states compelling their power plants to make better use of their existing control technology this year and updating their facilities with better tech by next year’s summer ozone season in 2022.

The inclusion of a certain kind of emission control method—selective non-catalytic reduction, or SNCR—was a significant addition to the update, Miller added.

Emission controls such as SNCR would be more cost-effective and help states achieve more by summer 2021, according to groups such as the Ozone Transport Commission in written comments to EPA on the rulemaking.

“In that sense, I feel EPA was responsive to state concerns and the court decision,” Miller said.

Biden’s $51 per ton cost of carbon and consideration of stronger and more recent pollution science on health and morbidity were both included in the rule’s analysis—a departure from less stringent, Trump-era analyses for environmental rulemakings.

The EPA says the new requirements will result in a 19% reduction of nitrous oxide, the precursor chemical to hazardous ozone.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Hijazi in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rebecca Baker at