Congressman Pete Olson

Representing the 22nd District of Texas

Clean air rules must be achievable, affordable

October 23, 2014

Houston Chronicle

By: Rep. Pete Olson

Many of us who grew up in Houston in the '70s can remember what it was like to try to see the skyline on smog-filled days - we couldn't. Cities like Houston, Los Angeles and even New York have at one time or another been draped in a blanket of man-made haze. Under the Clean Air Act of 1970, these cities and countless counties across America were given new requirements to cut down on this smog - also known as ground-level ozone - through new emissions limits.

Here in Houston, driven by a steady drumbeat of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules and the "can-do" Texas attitude, air emissions have been cut almost in half since the 1990s. Across the country, major industries took the necessary - and costly - steps that improved air quality, all during a population boom and increased energy production.

These improvements took decades, and we are now approaching air levels currently required in most of the country.

However, the EPA is expected to issue a rule to impose dramatically stricter limits on ground-level ozone across America. The current EPA ozone level required to be in attainment is 75 parts per billion; the EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee is looking at levels as low as 60 parts per billion.

Clean air is critically important; we all live, work and raise families in this region. We should always strive for cleaner air, but the goals must be balanced with what is achievable both through existing technology and by taking economic impacts into consideration. Before a rule is issued, we must understand just how devastating this reduction would be on our economy. Many regions took remarkable steps to get to current levels. Industry spent billions on reducing emissions and restrictions were placed on anyone trying to build a new factory or expand an existing one.

However, this new standard will be significantly harder to achieve and impossible to do without seriously jeopardizing our economic growth. Our region thrives because of manufacturing - we build things in this part of Texas and that means industrial activity.

On top of that, some of our air quality problems come from Chinese and even Mexican pollution wafting into the U.S., and naturally occurring events like storms and wildfires. These factors cannot be controlled by industry or technology alone.

Industrial cities - the ones that keep America's economy moving - have in many ways maxed out on the most reasonable options to further reduce emissions. This means many facilities simply won't be issued new construction permits. The job losses and burdensome regulations will affect every city still struggling to meet current ozone levels, not to mention new lower ones.

Automobile emissions also have an impact on air quality. Since emission controls have already been successfully implemented, in Texas the only options left are mandates like cutting speed limits to 55 mph and/or preventing cars from idling by closing down drive-thru restaurants. Higher costs for businesses mean higher costs for consumers.

Not long ago, the EPA said that current ozone regulations are adequate to protect the health of all Americans. Now, the agency is looking to slash the limit and impose economy crushing standards in part because under the current Clean Air Act, the EPA can't consider the economic costs of its rules.

I'm convinced we can achieve a better balance that improves air quality without crushing our economy. That's why I worked with U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., to develop legislation that allows the EPA to consider economic impacts when issuing these kinds of rules. Last month, U.S. Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, and I introduced HR 5505, the Clean Air, Strong Economies Act. This bipartisan bill states that the EPA must consider the economic impacts and feasibility of its regulations.

However, the EPA's focus would remain on protecting human health. The proposed legislation also states that the EPA may not update the current requirement until at least 85 percent of counties in the country have come into compliance with the existing rule.

We all want cleaner air for our families. It's important to balance this goal with realistic solutions that take economic impacts and achievability into consideration.

Olson, a Republican, represents Sugar Land in the U.S. House of Representatives and is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.