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In our opinion: New federal ozone standards penalize Western states and hamper growth, without improving ozone levels

FILE — The inversion settles over the Salt Lake Valley Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015.
FILE — The inversion settles over the Salt Lake Valley Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The federal government has issued new standards to reduce ozone pollution, and Utah, through no fault of its own, is not going to be able to meet them. "We did several summer studies and found that even the air coming into Utah does not meet the standard," said Dave McNeill, the manager of the state’s planning branch.

Some might take comfort, however, in the fact that neither Colorado nor Arizona will be able to meet them, either, and other states in the West will have a similar problem. But this is cold comfort, indeed. That’s because most of the background ozone in Utah’s atmosphere isn’t being generated here. Ozone that has settled in Southern Utah drifted into the Beehive State from Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and San Francisco’s ozone is making its way to the Wasatch Front. Consequently, these punitive new regulations are saddling Utah and other Western states with the responsibility to take the fall for California’s pollution production.

“This is just setting us up to fail,” said Colorado state senator Cheri Jhan. "When it’s already known that Colorado can’t make it, then is the goal to help states become more ozone-friendly? Or is it to punish them?”

The latter seems the more likely answer. Ross Eisenberg, vice president of energy and resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers, expressed similar concerns in a teleconference with Arizona business leaders. "Background ozone effectively penalizes Arizona and other states in the West,” he said. “We cannot reduce what we cannot control, but that is exactly what the EPA is requiring of us."

This is more than just a case of nettlesome federal overreach. In a futile attempt to reduce ozone pollution that we’re not creating, local businesses will be required to cut back on activity and growth, even though such efforts will have a negligible impact on Utah’s ozone levels. Eisenberg maintains that this will create “areas that have been thrown into no-grow-zones status,” and he’s exactly right. Ray Keating, chief economist for the Center for Regulatory Solutions, correctly calls this “a federal cap on economic development, including small businesses and job growth."

This is not to say that pollution is not a concern, or that businesses should not be required to strike a balance between growth and public health concerns. We strongly favor regulations that will have a positive impact on improving Utah’s air quality. Yet these new ozone standards do nothing of the kind. Instead, they are an empty and expensive gesture that punishes Utah and other states for California’s sins. It is time for the EPA to go back to the drawing board and draft new regulations that address the problem substantively, not symbolically.