Oil Lobby Pushed Pollution Loophole For Wildfire Smoke - The Lever

Seventy-five million people nationwide have been under air quality alerts, as days of smoke-filled skies sent soot levels soaring more than 10 times beyond what federal regulators consider safe for breathing.

But in federal air quality data, it will be as if those days never happened. That’s because a Big Oil-backed exemption in federal environmental law allows states to discount pollution from “exceptional events” beyond their control, including wildfires. And while environmental regulators are considering cracking down on soot and particle pollution, industry groups are opposing those reforms, too.

Under current rules, states like New York, where residents have been urged to remain indoors, won’t have their “hazardous” air quality index levels count against their [compliance with the federal Clean Air Act[( — so emissions sources in the state, for example, won’t be required to reduce other discharges to help offset the smoke pollution.

In an echo of its larger campaign of climate denial, oil lobbyists argued that it was virtually impossible to differentiate between “purely natural emissions” and those connected to human activity — so regulators should treat wildfires and other similar occurrences as “natural events.”

Last year, a panel of outside scientific experts [called the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee] took the opposite position, questioning whether federal regulators should continue to treat wildfires as “exceptional” given that they’re now seasonal events.

Part of the problem, some wildfire science experts say, is a framework that can ding states for smoke from the kind of controlled burns that help prevent wildfires, while letting them off the hook for the larger, more dangerous conflagrations that often result.

In public comments on proposed changes to the EPA’s “exceptional events” rule in 2016, one fire science expert suggested the agency take “the exact opposite” approach to regulating wildfire smoke.

The EPA didn’t incorporate suggestions from fire scientists in the 2016 changes.

But the agency did loosen the overall standards for what could be counted as an exceptional event — a move the American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil and gas industry’s top lobbying group, had backed in its own regulatory comments.

In prior years, API had lobbied alongside Exxon on proposed legislation to relax the criteria for states seeking air quality waivers from such events.

Federal environmental regulators are currently considering one measure that environmental justice groups say could help address rapidly declining air quality, including from wildfires — tightening standards for soot and particle pollution. That move is staunchly opposed by the oil and gas, mining, and chemical lobbies.

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The Lever

Organizations: Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee Environmental Protection Agency American Petroleum Institute ExxonMobil 

Tags: Fire Lobbying Pollution Clean Air Act Corruption Legislation 

Type: Headlines