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Fact Checking Seven Falsehoods in CNN’s Report

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WASHINGTON - Yesterday, CNN published an erroneous report that blatantly mischaracterizes an August 31 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) memo, which continues technical engagement with state environmental agencies in implementing the more stringent 2015 national standard for ground-level ozone. 

Despite spending nearly two hours with EPA Clean Air Act experts on the phone and receiving numerous pages of email responses, CNN failed to report virtually any of the facts provided in detail. This is a great disservice to the public who now believe EPA is ordering states to “pollute more.“”

Due to the numerous errors in the article, we have fact-checked seven errors found in the report so that the public may better understand the nature of the memo and EPA's collaboration with state environmental regulators in addressing cross-border pollution.

CNN article image.

1ST CNN Error: “EPA quietly telling states they can pollute more”

Correction: This guidance memo, which has been publicly posted on EPA’s website since its publication, is just that – guidance for states. The memo is one of a number of EPA analytical tools, including potential technical flexibilities for states as they follow a complex process to evaluate and address their “good neighbor” ozone obligations. In their state implementation plans, states have to control their emissions so that they don't interfere with their downwind neighbors' air quality. States have recently been developing their implementation plans for the 2015 ozone standard. Many states have used a four-step framework, upheld by the Supreme Court in 2014, to guide the necessary analysis for the “good neighbor” requirement. This framework and the approaches discussed in the guidance memo are designed to be consistent with the Clean Air Act, ensure air quality progress, and are intended to avoid heavy-handed federal plans which were imposed on more than 20 states in the implementation of previous ozone standards.

2ND CNN Error: “The new one part per billion standard means a state can emit 43% more pollution across state lines than before.”

Correction: Neither the Trump or Obama Administration established any standard or regulation related to 0.7 or one part per billion for cross-border ozone pollution. This memo does not establish a “new one part per billion standard,” but identifies potential technical approaches that a state may wish to choose when drafting their implementation plans. These plans must address any emissions that could interfere with a downwind state’s air quality under the updated 2015 national ozone standard of 70 parts per billion. The August memo, along with other technical tools over the last two years, lets states know how EPA expects to review state plans and what state analysis EPA thinks may be appropriate to include in those plans. The four-step framework represents a series of screening analyses, and the choice of any threshold in one part of this analysis does not determine an upwind state's “good neighbor” obligations. As noted in the memo, EPA will eventually propose and finalize approval or disapproval of individual states plans and these future actions will be subject to notice, public comment, and review in federal court. The guidance memo explores possible approaches states might take in their plans. It has no binding effect and does not prejudge the outcome of any state plan submission. Any approval of any state plan would be justified on its own record and would be subject to judicial review.

CNN's math is absolutely incorrect, as multiple rounds of EPA analytical work suggest that virtually the entire U.S. will meet the health-protective ozone standards established by the Obama Administration at level requisite to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety for sensitive population. CNN also ignores that the provision it's reporting on addresses only one potential technical approach for only one of the four steps states will analyze in addressing their “good neighbor” obligations.

3RD CNN Error: “Smog is a byproduct of air pollutants including greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change.”

Correction: Ground-level ozone is not emitted directly into the air, but is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC).

4TH CNN Error: “The guidance memo is just the latest move by the Trump administration to loosen restrictions surrounding air pollution.”

Correction: The most recent data demonstrates continued, dramatic improvement in air quality. EPA projects that nearly all areas of the country will meet the 2015 ozone standard by the early 2020s. Between 2007 and 2017, emissions of NOx, the key contributor to ground-level ozone, have dropped in the U.S. by more than 40 percent. For power plants that EPA and states regulate to address cross-border ozone contributions, NOx emissions dropped by 77,000 tons (21 percent) just between the 2016 and 2017 ozone seasons. 

Also, the U.S. is a global leader in clean air progress and carbon dioxide reductions. From 2005 to 2017, total U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions fell by 14 percent. In contrast, global energy-related CO2 emissions increased over 20 percent. The Agency’s latest GHG report found that GHG emissions from power plants dropped by nearly 20 percent between 2011 and 2017. 

5TH CNN Error: “Maryland has asked the EPA for help curbing the smog coming from upwind states.”

Correction: CNN's characterization of Maryland’s petition to EPA confuses two different parts of the Clean Air Act. The August 31 memo relates to section 110 of the Clean Air Act, which addresses state-wide emissions, whereas Maryland’s petition deals with section 126, which is about individual sources.

6TH CNN Error: “It was sent in August to EPA regional offices and posted on the agency's website, but not announced to the public.”

Correction: This guidance memo, which has been publicly posted on EPA’s website since its publication, builds upon multiple outreach calls with all 50 states as they develop their implementation plans.

7TH CNN Error: “The 0.7 part per billion cross-state threshold was rooted in a 2015 rule...”

Correction: This is false. This memo builds upon EPA modeling, technical tools, and potential flexibilities identified by EPA since late 2016. The 2015 ozone standard did not address implementation or cross-border pollution issues. There has never been a 0.7 ppb threshold for this or any other rule.

CORRECT CNN STATEMENT (AFTER 9 PARAGRAPHS): “The new memo is influential, because it guides decision making, but is not legally binding.”

KICKER: It’s not legally binding because it is just guidance, which contradicts the premise of the entire article.