Blue Sky Consulting Group

Rethinking the California Air Resources Board`s ozone standards

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Courtesy of Blue Sky Consulting Group

The California Air Resources Board (CARB), California’s state air-pollution regulatory agency, recently adopted the most stringent ozone air-pollution standard in the United States. Attempting to attain the new standard will impose great hardship on Californians in exchange for small and imperceptible health benefits.

By CARB’s own estimates, the incremental benefits of attaining its new eight-hour ozone standard, over and above the benefits of attaining the preexisting federal eight-hour standard, include reducing the average Californian’s annual risk of death by 1 in 120,000, and the risk of ending up in the hospital due to respiratory distress by 1 in 18,000. Even these small benefits are inflated, because CARB has overstated the health effects of low-level ozone exposure.

On the other hand, attempting to attain CARB’s ozone standards will impose large costs on Californians, likely in the range of tens of billions of dollars per year, or a few thousand dollars per year for each California household. Californians will pay these costs in the form of higher prices, lower wages, and reduced choices, causing damage to their health, welfare, and quality of life far in excess of the tiny health improvements from additional ozone reductions.

Attaining CARB’s standard is also likely to produce several hundred new cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer, a few thousand cases of cataracts, and several melanoma deaths each year by causing small increases in people’s exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation. These harms will directly offset much of the benefit CARB predicts from attainment of its ozone standard, yet the agency did not account for or even acknowledge the increases in UV exposure in its health analysis.

CARB’s actions are well-intended, but as a powerful, single-purpose agency with a staff that is passionate about air quality, it unavoidably suffers from tunnel vision—the pursuit of a single-minded goal to the point where it does more harm than good. Wealthier people lead safer and healthier lives. People made poorer by CARB’s requirements will be less safe and healthy as a result.

To validate its claim to be improving Californians’ health, CARB must show that attempting to attain its ozone standards will make them better off overall. This is all the more crucial because most costs of air-pollution regulations are hidden in the form of higher prices and lower wages. Thus, the people ostensibly being helped by lower ozone levels are never made aware of the real tradeoffs they’ve made and therefore have no way to determine whether they’ve struck a good bargain.

CARB’s new ozone standard will cause net harm to Californians. To maximize their health and welfare, CARB should have harmonized its ozone standard with the less stringent federal eight-hour standard.

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