Most likely this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will decide whether to lower the permissible level of ground-level ozone, a move that would affect business operations and economic development throughout the United States, with some cities and regions—even within the same state—impacted more than others.
By law, the EPA has to review the adequacy of its air-quality standard every five years to ensure it is set at a level deemed protective of the public health. The current standard, set in 2008, is 75 parts per billion (ppb). In December 2014, after the most recent review, the EPA announced the possibility of lowering the standard to a level between 65 ppb and 70 ppb.
Ozone is a colorless, odorless gas formed largely from two “precursor pollutants”—nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—primarily on hot, sunny days. At certain exposures, it is linked to lung and breathing problems.
To control ozone, regulators focus on NOx and VOC emissions from:
- Mobile sources—mostly cars and trucks, but also marine, rail, and off-road engines.
- Stationary sources—industries and electric utilities.
- “Area sources”—the “mom and pop” scale of business-related pollution.
Within a metropolitan area, or “air shed,” environmental regulators seek to develop regional NOx- and VOC-emission “budgets.” For industry, a NOx or VOC budget is implemented within a state’s system of operating permits. Regulators may determine, for example, that total NOx emissions in an air shed must be kept under 20 tons per day. That total helps in setting the emission allowance for each source category. If regulators decide the industry sector (stationary sources) has to stay under 7 tons per day, individual operating permits will reflect that regional sum.
Among business advocates, there are two basic concerns with the proposed reduction. First, how will emissions allowances for each source category—mobile vs. stationary vs. area—shift? Second, critics claim the EPA is too vague regarding the controls that could deliver the required reductions. The EPA contends a lower standard largely will result from current control policies, some of which are new. Critics disagree, arguing the nation will not just slide into compliance on the cheap, so to speak, and that a 65-to-70-ppb standard will require significant new controls to reduce NOx and VOCs. The National Association of Manufacturers, which has led the business critique of the EPA’s proposal, calls the possible ozone revision the costliest regulatory program ever.
A lower ozone standard presents critical concerns for industrial non-electric-generating-unit (non-EGU) boilers, particularly regarding NOx. Historically, EGU boilers have been the primary NOx targets. With a change from 75 ppb to perhaps 65 ppb—which would be significant—regulatory scope would expand, and NOx emissions from non-EGU boilers, especially large boilers, would get new attention.
Utility-sector NOx control is reaching its limits. And with Congress not particularly supportive of the EPA’s recent carbon-dioxide/climate-control proposals, the profile of non-EGU boilers would be raised.
There is another important twist with NOx: In some places, NOx has been identified as the more important ozone precursor. Air-quality models in North Carolina, for example, cite natural sources (trees, forests) as the source of VOCs. No one is going to clear-cut the Smoky Mountains. In this respect, again, a lower ozone standard would put new pressures on NOx and new pressures on all sources.
At individual facilities, boiler operators face difficult questions: If required to scale back NOx, what are the options? Are they cost-effective? Do competitors face the same requirements? There are no easy, standardized answers. With ozone, regulatory uncertainty is part of the game. It can take years for the dust to settle regarding who has to do what and to what extent.
On the technical side, options for NOx control are part of regular engineering reviews. Control options include switching fuels, flue-gas recirculation, and catalytic/non-catalytic reduction. More extremely, NOx control could mean scrapping a boiler prematurely or even shutting it down.
Currently, there is a critical parallel issue: the boiler Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) rules, established to control hazardous air pollutants. The MACT compliance deadline is Jan. 31, 2016.
The Council of Industrial Boiler Owners (CIBO) has prepared a timeline for boiler MACT compliance. CIBO’s schedule suggests construction and installation should be taking place now for the January deadline to be met. A question keeping facility owners and operators up at night is this: What if your boiler MACT project is spot-on, but then NOx is judged too high because regulators are looking for ways to implement a lower ozone standard?
While the ozone standard is national, pollution-control programs vary throughout the country and even within states. That is because air quality is worse in some metropolitan areas than others. Think of a facility in Los Angeles and one in Columbus, Ohio. Other factors being more or less equal, the facilities will demand very different approaches for additional NOx control.
New NOx issues would create competitive issues as well. If your facility is in Los Angeles and your competitor’s is in Columbus, the emission-control impacts from a revised ozone standard could be quite disparate—same national standard, much different programs. Would your competitor have the advantage?
If a new standard were to be announced, states would be required to determine whether ozone readings in urban areas met the new standard, whether regions were “in compliance.” Depending on the EPA’s final numbers, hundreds of counties could be out of compliance. State governors would be asked to determine the degree of “non-compliance” (e.g., “marginally,” “moderately”). The EPA then would review the governors’ proposals and make a final decision regarding level of non-compliance, with decisions due in October 2017.
Importantly, these are not casual rankings. Control programs in “marginal” areas are less exacting than those in “moderate” ones. There are yet higher rankings for “serious,” “severe,” and “extreme” areas of the country. Under the current standard of 75 ppb, LA-South Coast is considered “extreme,” while Ventura County, Calif., is considered “serious.” Dallas-Fort Worth is a “moderate” area. Thirty-six metro areas, from New York to Cleveland to Denver to San Francisco, are considered “marginal.” With a new lower standard between 65 ppb and 70 ppb, all of these regions likely will be judged more harshly, with businesses facing new and more stringent pollution-control policies.
Business managers are wise to pay close attention to the evaluation and ranking of metropolitan areas. By doing so, they will better understand the ramifications for their operating areas, if a new standard is enacted. Additionally, they will be able to participate in proposals about new controls and influence final decisions via trade organizations and elected officials. Now is the time for them to sharpen their advocacy skills.
Stay tuned for updates.