Federal Court Upholds Obama-Era Smog Rules

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Cars drive over the Golden Gate Bridge on August 2, 2018 in Sausalito, California.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. today upheld Obama-era smog and air quality standards. Conservative states and industry leaders had tried to scrap them, saying that the rules were too burdensome.

California joined states like New York and public health organizations including the American Lung Association in defending the standards that regulate ground-level ozone, an irritating gas that smells like chlorine.

Paul Billings, senior vice president of advocacy with the American Lung Association, called the court decision a win for public health.

“The court upheld the health-based standards,” he said. “It firmly rejected the challenges by industry and some states that attempted to bring in external considerations like economics and background ozone levels. The court shot those claims down.”

In a statement emailed to reporters, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the court’s ruling prevented an attempt by corporate interests to put profits over air quality. He said the standards save upwards of 100 lives and prevent 380 asthma-related emergency room visits each year in the state.


“For many, poor air quality is not just upsetting, but debilitating,” Becerra said. “It means missed days of school, work, and countless other opportunities. It’s a matter of life and death. Our children should never be left gasping for air because of government inaction or corporate greed.”

The ozone standards -- a cap at 70 parts per billion  -- were first set by the Obama administration in 2015, after it determined the previous rules weren’t strong enough.

Scott Pruitt was one of the first attorneys to challenge Obama’s smog rule, back when he was Oklahoma's attorney general and before the Trump administration named him to lead  the Environmental Protection Agency.

Kamala Harris, then California’s attorney general, initially joined public health groups in defending the rules in court. Becerra replaced her when she became a U.S. senator from California. Harris is running to be the Democratic nominee for president.

Ground-level ozone, sometimes called trioxygen because it’s made up of three oxygen atoms, is a toxic air pollutant and the central ingredient of smog.

It’s derived from industrial emissions, car exhaust, and other chemicals reacting to each other in the atmosphere (not to be confused with stratospheric ozone, which occurs naturally in the upper atmosphere and protects humans from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays).

Smog can cause chest pain, coughing, inflammation, and reduce lung function in people who breathe it, the EPA reports.

Both Becerra and Billings claimed a win with the court’s ruling. The Trump administration considered throwing out Obama’s smog rule, but ultimately decided to defend it in court.

However, Trump’s EPA  is updating the smog standards and could issue its own rules as part of a five-year review.