ENVIRONMENT
09/09/2015 11:45 am ET

Oil Industry Gets Help On Undermining Ozone Standards From A Well-Informed Source

A former EPA official is working with BP on a plan to undermine new smog standards.
This October 2008 photo shows smog shrouding downtown Houston.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
This October 2008 photo shows smog shrouding downtown Houston.

WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to lower limits on ozone pollution has been fraught with controversy. But opponents of lowering the standard have a well-informed ally: a former EPA official who was involved in developing the updated standard.  

The agency's draft proposal, released last November, called for lowering the range of permissible ozone pollution to between 65 and 70 parts per billion, from the current limit of 75 parts per billion. Ground-level ozone pollution -- better known as smog -- forms from automobile exhaust and emissions from power plants and industrial facilities.

Environmental and public health groups are lobbying for the final standard to fall on the lower end of that range, while oil and gas interests don't want to see it lowered at all.

And those oil interests are getting an assist from former EPA official Bob Sussman. 

Sussman, who served as senior policy counsel at the EPA from 2009 to July 2013, is listed as an attendee at a meeting between EPA officials and the oil giant BP on July 24. Janet McCabe, EPA acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, and six other agency staffers attended the meeting. 

According to a summary of the meeting, BP has asked the agency to adjust the standard to include more exemptions for background levels of ozone pollution. Background levels of ozone can come from things like wildfires, or pollution that originates in other countries.

BP argued that consideration of such background levels is putting an undue burden on some regions of the country. In issuing its proposal last year, EPA argued that the background levels aren't a major problem in most parts of the U.S., and described the various mechanisms in place under the Clean Air Act that already that allow for exemptions.

Reached for comment, Sussman confirmed that he works for a number of clients, including BP, but said that he does not comment on specific projects and declined to discuss it further. Sussman now has his own consulting firm and is listed as an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law.

A BP spokesman also told The Huffington Post that Sussman is "among the outside consultants BP works with to accomplish its business objectives." The BP spokesman said that while they discussed background ozone levels in the meeting, they "did not discuss the appropriate level of the ozone standard."  

But BP is also working through the American Petroleum Institute on the ozone issue, the spokesman confirmed. And API has taken the position that new standards "are not justified from a health perspective because the science is simply not showing a need to reduce ozone levels."

The EPA's scientific advisory board, however, has advocated for lowering the standard, noting that a lower standard would yield more health protections, particularly for vulnerable groups like children, the elderly and people with lung conditions.

The fight over the ozone standard has dragged on for years. The Bush EPA proposed setting the standard at 75 parts per billion in March 2008, which was notably higher than the scientific advisory board recommended. A group of environmental and public health groups, along with 11 state attorneys general, filed suit to block standards they said were too weak.

The Obama administration revisited the standards shortly after taking office, releasing a draft proposal in January 2010 that called for lowering the limit to between 60 and 70 parts per billion. But the final rules were repeatedly delayed, and in September 2011 Obama himself directed the EPA to withdraw the proposal as part of an effort to reduce regulatory burdens.

Environmental and public health groups sued again, and last year a federal judge gave EPA an October 2015 deadline for finalizing the rules. The EPA issued draft rules in November 2014 that proposed lowering the limit to 65 to 70 parts per billion.

Sussman should have a good sense of how the standards would work -- he was working at the EPA when the agency first proposed the tougher standard in 2010, and according to news reports from the time, was involved in the decision-making process. The American Petroleum Institute made a presentation to Sussman at the time that focused on the background ozone issue.

An EPA spokeswoman declined to comment.

But others are pointing to Sussman's new role working with BP to weaken the standards as evidence of the revolving door of Washington. Sussman also worked as a deputy administrator in the Clinton administration EPA. After leaving the Clinton administration, he was a registered lobbyist for the firm Latham & Watkins. In 2008 he was named to Obama's transition team and then joined the EPA as a senior policy counsel.

"It's really troubling to see an issue [Sussman] was deeply involved in, and then have [him] come back and petition the agency on those same issues," said a representative of a nonprofit group advocating to lower the ozone standard, talking on background in order to speak more freely. 

He called the BP position "particularly cynical because the oil industry creates a lot of upwind pollution," and said that changing how the standard deals with background ozone is just as dangerous to public health as a higher overall limit. "If you create a situation where you weaken the standard by removing days where dirty air is threatening the health of the public, it gets you to a similar place -- less health protection for the public," he said. "It's not the frontal assault, but a surgical attempt to undermine the standard."

Others were happy to criticize the situation on the record. "It truly is mind-boggling that he would go consult for a big oil company that obviously fears any air quality limits on fracking operations," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, calling oil companies the "ring leaders" in efforts to block a tougher standard.

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy has said the agency will release the final proposal by the Oct. 1 deadline.

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