Cities in the United States have seen a noticeable improvement in air quality because of reduced vehicle miles traveled. Improved air quality that has been the result of people staying at home recently could help some marginal nonattainment areas meet the 2015 Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) of 0.070 ppm Ozone. That would mean some nonattainment areas could see improved air quality that would help them avoid more stringent permit limits on Nitrogen Oxide and Volatile Organic Compound pollution, which are Ozone precursors. The avoidance of more stringent limits could be beneficial to industry in the designated marginal nonattainment areas.

Avoiding a more stringent designation, however, could be quite tricky. Just as states have argued that events such as wildfires are “Exceptional Events” and should be exempted from data for the area, it is also likely that “Exceptional Event” designation would be used in the opposite manner in this situation. Environmental groups could argue that areas which met the standard due to the impact of COVID-19 should not be able to use the improved air quality data to avoid more stringent reclassification.

Clean Air Act Section 107, 42 USC Section 7407(d)(3)(E)(iii) states that nonattainment redesignation needs to show that “improvement in air quality is due to permanent and enforceable reductions in emissions resulting from implementation of the applicable implementation plan.” States would have figure out a way to make reductions part of the implementation plan and enforceable.

If there is a silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic, reduction in overall vehicle miles traveled and longer-term improved air quality could be it. Many companies have been able to use the stay at home orders to improve their work-from-home capabilities. It is also possible that some companies will continue to let more employees work from home, which could show permanent reductions in ozone levels in nonattainment areas even over time. The pandemic has shown us that it is possible to get people out of cars and the impact does reduce air pollution in cities – and fast. Now it will be interesting to see if these changes lead to permanent policy changes and improvements in overall air quality in cities, which would help the people living in those cities to breathe cleaner air and it could help industry avoid more stringent air permit limitations.

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