EPA Tightens Air Quality Standard

Photos courtesy of NWFA

Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it would tighten the final air quality standard for fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), from 12 micrograms (ug) per cubic meter to a more stringent 9 ug, a level which could impose up to $900 million in compliance costs on the wood products sector. This could otherwise be addressed by forest management and an accompanying reduction in wildfires, which are the source of 43 percent of PM emissions. As a point of reference, the European Union standard is 25 ug, more than twice as high as permitted concentrations in the U.S. Lowering the standard would place 589 counties in non-attainment and hundreds more on the cusp of non-attainment.

As a general matter, compliance with the PM standard currently falls mainly on “major sources” of pollution under the Clean Air Act, such as power plants, chemical refineries, and large pulp and paper facilities. That said, the Hardwood Federation is concerned that tightening the regulations would capture currently unregulated hardwood mills and manufacturing facilities operating on the cusp of or within newly designated non-attainment areas. This could trigger costly analysis and monitoring in the event a plant seeks to expand its operations.

On the advocacy front, the Hardwood Federation joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) in a meeting with the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to urge the administration to reject EPA’s proposal to tighten the standard. During the course of the meeting, the federation echoed points raised within formal comments that had been submitted previously, advocating that EPA retain the current standard. The federation cited a study conducted by the American Forest & Paper Association and American Wood Council outlining the economic impacts of a more stringent standard. According to the study, the wood products sector could take on up to $900 million in compliance costs if the agency imposes a standard of 9 ug. Fortunately for the industry, both the federation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce directed their remarks at OMB toward responsible forest management as the common-sense solution to reducing PM levels, which have increased in many regions because of wildfires.

Although the final outcome marks a setback for the industry, behind-the-scenes advocacy helped push the release of the new rules two months later than expected, following a tug-of-war between competing voices within the administration. According to administration sources, in late 2023, the EPA had been considering a more flexible standard of 10 micrograms per cubic meter, an outcome that the industry favored over the more costly alternative while still preferring the current standards set at 12 ug. The Hardwood Federation team joined wood products allies, including the American Wood Council and the American Forest and Paper Association, to urge Democratic senators to weigh in with the administration and advocate against imposing these standards.

The next steps include options such as litigation and legislative intervention to blunt the impact of the new rule. While arguing that the new PM standard falls outside the scope of EPA authority in federal court could provide the path of least resistance to regulatory relief, groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also will look at legislative tools. These may include an appropriations rider in a Fiscal Year (FY) 2025 spending bill that would defund the implementation of the tighter standard. The Hardwood Federation will keep you posted on developments as they unfold.

Dana Lee Cole is the executive director at the Hardwood Federation, a Washington, D.C. based hardwood industry trade association that represents thousands of hardwood businesses in every state in the United States and acts as the industry advocacy voice on Capitol Hill. She can be reached at dana.cole@hardwoodfederation.com.

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