The Environmental Protection Agency recently finalized a new rule to reduce the level of particulate matter (PM) by updating the national air-quality standards. Particulate matter is made up of microscopic solid particles such as dirt, soot or smoke and liquid droplets in the air up to 2.5 microns in diameter — far smaller than a human hair. Particulate matter comes from a variety of sources including power plants, cars, dust, construction sites and wildfire smoke. The new rule will lower the annual standard to 9 micrograms per cubic meter from 12 micrograms per cubic meter established by the Obama Administration. The 24-hour standard which is meant to account for short-term spikes will remain at 35 micrograms per cubic meter. Since 2000, particulate matter has declined by 42 percent, even as the U.S. gross domestic product has increased by 52 percent.

The new rule does not impose controls on specific industries; it lowers the annual standard for fine particulate matter for overall air quality, leaving states to force industries to comply or close their doors. The EPA plans to take samples of air across the country starting this year through 2026 to identify counties and other areas that do not meet the new standard. It will also tweak its air monitoring network to better capture the air pollution that communities living near industrial infrastructure face. States would then have 18 months to develop compliance plans for those areas. States that do not meet the new standard by 2032 could face penalties. While the standard itself would not force polluters to shut down, the EPA and state regulators could use it as the basis for other rules that target specific sources such as diesel-fueled trucks, refineries and power plants.

EPA estimates that about 59 counties across the United States — less than 2 percent of the nation’s counties — may be out of compliance with the new standards, but expects that 99 percent of U.S. counties will be able to meet the revised annual standard by 2032 when penalties set in for non-compliance. Most of those counties are in California, which has a mix of air pollution from agricultural operations, industry and seasonal wildfires. The rest is in Oregon and Montana, which have suffered from extreme wildfires in recent years. Controlling smoke and particulate matter from wildfires has been a difficult problem for state and local air-quality officials. It has been a problem for a couple of decades, and it will take a couple of decades to find a solution, according to one expert. Exemptions for nonindustrial sources of soot such as wildfires have not been granted consistently in the past, which could make compliance even more difficult.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an industry lobby group that opposes the new rule, puts the percentage of noncompliant counties at 18 percent (569 counties). Industry groups and Republican officials also disagree with EPA figures on non-compliant counties, saying a limit of 9 micrograms per cubic meter could sharply increase the number of U.S. counties in violation of the standard. Companies in those places would have difficulty obtaining permits to build or expand industrial plants.

Opponents indicate that it will hamper American manufacturing and eliminate jobs and could shut down power plants and/or refineries. EPA officials, however, did not estimate the employment impact of the new rule because of the variety of industries affected.

Industry groups like the American Forest & Paper Association, American Wood Council and the group’s member company CEOs sent a letter to the White House in October expressing their opposition to the rule, saying the move, “threatens U.S. competitiveness and modernization projects in the U.S. paper and wood products industry and in other manufacturing sectors across our country.” “This would severely undermine President Biden’s promise to grow and reshore U.S. manufacturing jobs, and ultimately make American manufacturing less competitive.” “It also would harm an industry that has been recognized as an important contributor to achieving the Administration’s carbon reduction goals, including in future procurement for federal buildings.”

Cement makers also agree that the new rule would hurt the Biden administration’s infrastructure and climate goals. Mike Ireland, president of the Portland Cement Association, told the New York Times that the rule “would lead to fewer hours of operation at plants, which would mean layoffs, as well as less American cement and concrete at a time when the country needs more.” The Portland Cement Association and other industry groups will likely challenge the standard in court.

The rule is also bad news for the U.S. coal industry. The governors of Kansas and Kentucky had asked President Biden to block the rule, saying it would hurt jobs in their respective states and be difficult to achieve. In West Virginia, the number of mining jobs dropped from 25,000 in 2010 to about 12,000 today. The coal industry is surviving by exporting coal to Europe and Asia, as well as producing metallurgical coal for steel production. In 1990, coal produced more than half of the nation’s supply of electricity, but that figure has dropped to less than 20 percent today. Utilities have closed many older coal plants that were unable to meet existing air-pollution requirements, and retrofitted those that remain in operation to current standards. But the new rule will require some retrofitted power plants—as well as cement factories and other industries—to have even more-stringent controls to further cut particulate matter. Added controls mean higher prices for consumers.


The new EPA rule sets an air quality level that states and counties must achieve in the coming years to reduce particulate matter from power plants, vehicles, industrial sites and wildfires. If states do not comply by 2032, penalties could be levied. Industry warned the Biden administration that the new rule will affect manufacturing and jobs and also hurt the administration’s infrastructure and climate goals. Nevertheless, Biden’s EPA finalized the rule, lowering the annual standard for particulate matter by 25 percent.

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