There’s an opportunity for tech in the EPA’s proposed smog rule

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to tighten the rule for regulating ground-level ozone, or smog, a move that regulators hope will spark new technology development to reduce emissions.

The agency proposed Wednesday to limit the ground-level ozone to 65-70 parts per billion, down from the 75 parts per billion that it set in 2008. It also is asking for public comment on lowering it further to 60 parts per billion, which is a threshold sought by environmental groups.

Ground-level ozone comes from the reaction of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds under sunlight. Those chemicals are emitted by power plants, other industrial operations and cars’ tailpipes. Smog prompts asthma attacks and lung and heart diseases, leading to premature deaths from those illnesses.


Reducing smog will improve Americans’ health to the value of $6.3 billion to $13 billion annually in 2025, if the standard is set at 70 parts per billion, according to an EPA estimate. The value will increase to $19 billion to $38 billion for 65 parts per billion. Setting the new range to 65-70 parts per billion could prevent anywhere from 750 to 4,300 premature deaths and 65,000 to 180,000 missed workdays, the EPA added.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy noted during a press conference call the importance of innovation to help keep the country’s air clean, and she gave a shout-out to California, which, incidentally, will likely take longer than other states to comply with the new rule.

“It’s sparking new technology, which is increasingly important as we move forward,” McCarthy said about tightening the smog standard. “The good news is that California has become a birth place of innovative technology as a result and is providing a lot of opportunities across the U.S. to take advantage of their innovation.”

California’s topography and large population, which leads to high electricity demand and puts lots of cars on the road, increases the production of smog and traps it, making it difficult to get rid of it. The state has put in stringent air quality standards over the past three decades to regulate emissions, but most residents still face smog levels that pose health risks, said the California Air Resources Board. Drought and heat have worsened the smog over the past year.

solar panel

California’s air quality problem has certainly inspired new technology development, especially when it’s home to Silicon Valley. New sensors and software for collecting and analyzing air quality data have emerged from the labs of tech companies and research institutions in California. Companies such as Intel have been working on sensors for monitoring air quality and managing energy and other resources efficiently, given the growth of the world’s population and large cities.

But we should invest in technology that prevents pollution buildup in the first place. California’s mandates for increasing its use of cleaner electricity sources, such as wind and solar, and electric and other low or zero-emission cars, have spawned many tech companies that work on bringing new technologies to the market. Tesla Motors and SolarCity are two examples. But more needs to be done to bring down the smog levels in California and elsewhere.

The EPA was supposed to set the standard in 2011, but President Obama delayed it when he worried that it would hurt his re-election bid the following year. Environmental groups sued, and a judge ordered the administration to release the proposed standard by December 1 this year.

The EPA will hold public hearings and then finalize the ozone standard by Oct. 1, 2015.