Faced with a court-ordered deadline, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized more stringent rules for National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Particulate Pollution (PM2.5), more commonly known as soot.

The new standard lowers the standard from 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air down to 12 micrograms, and counties must meet the standard by 2020 or face penalties. The EPA’s new standard will be expensive economically, especially to those states and counties facing nonattainment, and it ignores the improvements in air quality made with the current standard.

Further, the rushed, court-ordered decision has a weak scientific underpinning, and changes to the monitoring requirements could place even more areas in the United States out of attainment, inflicting great economic harm in the process.

One of the ways local economies in nonattainment can reach attainment is to have less economic activity, particularly less manufacturing. Just the fear of being in nonattainment and facing financial penalties and tighter regulations would keep businesses away from those economic regions. A 2011 study by economists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Chicago found that the productivity of existing plants in nonattainment areas declines when compared to the productivity of manufacturers in complying areas, which has significant effects on future firm location as well as expansion.

The Electric Reliability Coordinating Council also highlights the problems in the way the new rule changes monitoring. In a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the organization writes that the proposal “would result in substantial changes to the monitoring protocols for PM, and it does not appear that the rule can be implemented in an efficient manner. For example, EPA’s effort to terminate well-established monitoring protocols, such as the requirement that monitors be ‘population oriented,’ will result in a much more stringent rule and a range of new cost and implementation issues.”

It is also important to put into context what the EPA is regulating. How bad is the air quality? Steve Milloy, author and adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, provides some context:

The average adult inhales about 11,000 liters of air per day, equivalent to 11 cubic meters of air. Keeping in mind that indoor levels of PM2.5 easily can exceed outdoor levels. Assuming someone inhales average outdoor air all day, that person would inhale about 240 micrograms of PM2.5. The EPA says smoking a single cigarette can expose a smoker to 10,000 to 40,000 micrograms of PM2.5. It would take a nonsmoker breathing average outdoor air something between 40 and 160 days to inhale as much PM2.5 as someone smoking a single cigarette.

Although the EPA acknowledges in the rulemaking that “important uncertainties remain in the qualitative and quantitative characterizations of health effects attributable to ambient fine particles,” it also stresses that “intensive evaluation of the scientific evidence and quantitative assessments has provided an adequate basis for regulatory decision making at this time.”

There have been several documented problems with the EPA’s evaluation of scientific evidence, including double counting of benefits and monetizing the benefits of avoided death at a uniform $9 million each, regardless of age or health.

The EPA’s new soot rule would deal another costly, devastating blow to local economies. The EPA should acknowledge that particulate matter is decreasing and air quality is improving from technological advancements, even from the years 2000–2010, when the rule remained unchanged. The agency should reconsider the rule, and if it fails to do so, Congress should intervene to keep the standard where it is now.