msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/31/2007 5:14:08 PM ET 2007-01-31T22:14:08

Federal scientists on Wednesday proposed tightened smog standards, a step that the Environmental Protection Agency said would work with, not clash with, President Bush's plan to wean Americans away from gasoline.

More than half the nation, or nearly 160 million people, breathe illegal levels of smog, mostly in and around major cities in California and the East.

EPA scientists provided a range of options for healthier air. Last year, EPA identified hundreds of the nation’s most populated counties that were polluting the air with too much smog, and ordered them to clean it up.

Billions of dollars might have to be spent on cleaner-burning factories, power plants and cars and more mass transportation.

The current standard permits 0.08 parts per million of ground-level ozone, the main component of smog, while the EPA scientists proposed a level between 0.06 and “somewhat below” 0.08 parts per million.

Activists see 'milestone'
Frank O’Donnell of the environmental group Clean Air Watch hailed the recommendations as “a milestone” in the policy-making process, calling the standard for smog “the heart and lungs of the Clean Air Act.”

A government source told the Associated Press that what the scientists recommended has stirred “a great deal of controversy” within EPA and could complicate Bush’s push for more ethanol use in vehicles.

EPA staff members have felt they were under pressure from administration officials, including people at the White House, not to give a specific recommendation for tightening the standard, the official said.

Bill Wehrum, the acting EPA assistant administrator for air, denied that, saying the agency is "trying to do two things at the same time, and they're both very compatible."

Agency documents show that more ethanol use could raise smog levels less than 1 percent, mainly in parts of the Midwest that don’t use cleaner-burning reformulated gasoline to offset the volatility in ethanol.

Ethanol, which is currently made from corn, helps cut carbon monoxide in winter and carbon dioxide overall. Yet it also can raise smog levels in summer, air pollution experts say. Ethanol releases more nitrogen oxides, a key element of smog, and evaporates more easily than gasoline, adding other air pollutants.

“If you’re a state air pollution official trying to lower the smog, that’s not helpful,” said A. Blakeman Early, a lobbyist for the American Lung Association, whose legal battle with the EPA over air quality standards forced Wednesday’s deadline. “The data we have is pretty thin. We need to look at this question much more carefully.”

EPA cites ethanol benefits
Wehrum countered that the EPA expects newer cars with better pollution controls to cut off any smog increase and cited ethanol's other benefits: reduced carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and benzene.

In his State of the Union speech, Bush called on Americans to reduce gasoline consumption by 20 percent over 10 years by substituting alternative fuels, mainly ethanol, in its place.

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson has until mid-June to decide what to do with the recommendations.

Last year, more than a dozen states and several environmental groups filed a suit alleging that scientists’ recommendations for lower soot levels from smokestacks and exhaust pipes had been ignored. The fine particles contribute to premature deaths and respiratory illness.

Unlike ozone in the upper atmosphere, which shields the Earth from damaging ultra-violet rays, ground-level ozone causes problems, especially for those with asthma and other lung ailments.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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