Energy efficiency, the cost of delivering reliable electricity, and respiratory health have taken on an even greater importance for California with the recent turmoil brought about by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. In mid-April the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it would “retain without changes,” the existing National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for particulate matter (PM). NAAQS standards are mandated by the Clean Air Act, which is administered by the EPA. The standards limit the atmospheric concentration of a variety of pollutants, including both fine and coarse particulate matter – which cause smog, acid rain, and other environmental health hazards. California policymakers including Governor Newsom should advocate for and follow the current EPA standards.

The existing NAAQS standards were published in 2013 under the Obama Administration, and the EPA is required to review the latest scientific studies and reaffirm or modify the NAAQS every five years. The EPA’s Administrator, Andrew Wheeler, appointed to reaffirm the existing 2013 standards, justified recent decisions by pointing out the significant reductions in PM under the existing system. By all accounts, the 2013 standard is working. Current measurements from the Clean Air Act programs along with measurements conducted by state, county, local, and tribal governments, indicate that “on average PM2.5 concentrations in the U.S. fell by 39 percent between 2000 and 2018. Similarly, average PM10 concentrations fell by 31 percent during the same period.” These standards have benefited California’s environment and should not be changed since the state has a $54.3 billion budget deficit and trillions in unfunded liabilities to consider before enacting job-killing regulations.

Wheeler’s sensible decision ensures continued California and nationwide reductions in PM, while leaving room for energy generators in both the renewable and fossil fuel sectors to provide cost-effective energy. More importantly, when you consider the impact of more onerous regulations in the midst of a pandemic and global recession, maintaining existing compliance burdens simply makes sense.

Unfortunately, environmental activists have pounced on Wheeler’s announcement, alleging that the decision to maintain existing standards is an erosion of the United States’ environmental protections. When placed in the context of a global pandemic ravaging the American and California economy, this environmental crusading is particularly concerning. Despite this fact, certain voices in the environmental movement have continued to leverage the pandemic to attack Wheeler’s decision. 

Recently, Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health hurriedly trotted out a study, which attempted to link long-term exposure of particulate matter pollution with higher coronavirus fatality rates. Gina McCarthy, a former EPA administrator who oversaw the implementation of Obama-era NAAQS standards and now heads the National Resources Defense Council, touted the Harvard study while attacking Wheeler’s decision. McCarthy called the decision ‘indefensible,” and “passing up an opportunity to make the air cleaner for millions of Americans – choosing instead to do nothing.” McCarthy’s comments are vexing, considering that Administrator Wheeler is electing to continue using the standards that she helped establish, enforce, and have benefited California’s environmental health and air quality standards.

Abrupt and conveniently-timed policy shifts are nothing new for McCarthy. For example, during her EPA tenure in 2015, McCarthy said “There’s nothing inherently dangerous in fracking that sound engineering practices can’t accomplish.” She now runs an organization that outwardly opposes the practice of fracking. McCarthy’s changing positions seem duplicitous. Whether fracking or NAAQS, consistency matters, and it’s clear that setting unrealistic NAAQS standards while U.S. emissions are declining doesn’t make economic or environmental sense. 

In response to the politically motivated Harvard study, Administrator Wheeler appropriately responded by saying that the “Harvard researchers had misinterpreted EPA’s March coronavirus-related enforcement policy as a wide waiver for companies to pollute more.” In contrast to the study, EPA findings show PM2.5 levels fell 40% in the U.S. since 2000 as power plants and cars became less pollutant and America transitioned from coal-fired to natural gas-fired power plants. In fact, only nine U.S. counties failed to meet the EPA’s PM2.5 national standard.

County-wide data continues to be quoted without adjusting individual health differences, death rate differentials over exposure to high or low amounts of PM2.5, or varying pollution in neighborhoods across the U.S. The San Bernardino valley in California, which sits in a bowl lodged between mountains, offers vastly different geography than a poor neighborhood in Pennsylvania where trash is incinerated. Harvard, McCarthy, Bloomberg, and others fail to consider the significant geographic and topographic considerations.

Pushback has also popped up from unlikely skeptics of the Harvard study, and the associated push to enact more draconian PM standards. Carleton University’s Paul Villeneuve and McGill University’s Mark Goldberg said, “As epidemiologists who have studied air pollution for more than two decades, we found the study’s impacts staggering. When we looked closely at the research, we saw so many shortcomings we were not convinced of the results.” 

At the same time, industry and business groups are in full support of Wheeler’s decision. The American Chemical Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute have touted it as a balanced approach to sensible environmental stewardship, public health awareness, and buttressing the sagging American economy. As California goes, so goes American economic growth and vitality.

Now is simply not the time to shutter energy production and other commercial activity that will save lives and deny livelihoods to millions of Americans and Californians. Let’s keep the existing standards that are working, invest in peer-reviewed research that exempts political agendas, and avoid enacting new regulatory barriers on businesses that are contributing to the recovery from the current pandemic.