Farmers to Bear Brunt of New Clean Air Standards, by Chad Cowan

The Environmental Protection Agency recently imposed new, more strict air quality standards that many of the nation’s farmers believe will have a disproportionate, negative impact on their way of life.

“While the EPA’s plan to improve air quality may have been well-intentioned, the end result will be economically disastrous,” says Jack Laurie, a Michigan farmer who serves as president of the state’s Farm Bureau. “This shotgun approach will only serve to put American agriculture out of competition with other countries and put agricultural producers out of work. Because U.S. agricultural commodity prices are tied to world prices, a farmer cannot simply pass on the cost of doing business to the consumer.”

Last November, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced new standards for ozone (smog) and particulate matter (soot and dust) arguing that higher standards could prevent 15,000 premature deaths and relieve some 250,000 people from asthma attacks each year. The new standards, which went into effect in July, require states to reduce ozone emissions by an additional 25 percent and ratchet up the particulate matter standard to cover particles as small as 2.5 microns (equal to 1/28th the width of a human hair), one-quarter the size of the previous standard.

Since the proposal for stricter standards surfaced late last year, numerous local governments, scientists, and citizens have voiced their opposition. Many have argued against the standards based on economic grounds. Others have argued against them based on their likely impact on everyday activities such as using the backyard barbecue, using a fireplace, and driving a car. Virtually ignored in the debate, however, is the particularly devastating impact the new standards will have on American farmers.

The EPA claims that farmers would be unaffected by the new, more stringent standards saying that only “big polluters” would be affected. But according to a report issued by the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators (STAPPA) and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials (ALAPCO), farmers would qualify as “big polluters” under the EPA’s new standards.

The report suggests that up to 83 percent of all the particulate matter emissions covered by the new standard come from agriculture, dirt roads, natural resources, and construction, among other things. Even the EPA estimates that 34.3 percent of fine particulate matter is attributable to agriculture and forestry. The EPA would therefore have little choice but to consider farmers “big polluters.”

Still, the EPA claims farmers and farm states are not the targets of the new regulations. If recent history is any indication, farmers should be skeptical of such a claim. In 1995, the EPA created the Ozone Transport Assessment Group (OTAG), to address air pollution problems in highly-populated states. OTAG’s solution was to shift greater air quality controls onto rural states to compensate for pollution emanating from urban areas.

The EPA’s new air quality standards could affect farmers and ranchers in farm states in many ways. Farmers would most certainly be saddled with the higher regulatory compliance costs of the more stringent emissions standards. They could also be forced to pay such indirect costs as higher fuel prices (due to fuel reformulation requirements), new taxes on fertilizer, no-till soil preparation expenses, costs associated with mandated reduced herd sizes, and higher prices for full-size pickup trucks, a staple of American farmers and ranchers. These costs could make American farmers less competitive with farmers in nations that do not impose such air quality regulations.

As a demonstration of the significant cost of these new regulations, the costs to the state of Iowa alone provide an instructive example. Iowa farmers would have to spend up to ten cents more for a gallon of new, reformulated gasoline and Iowa utility companies would be required to spend an estimated $400 million in capital costs and an additional $165 million annually for operations and maintenance costs to meet the new requirements. Farm equipment manufacturers may have to upgrade their facilities as well. John Deere, a major producer of farm equipment, estimates costs of compliance for their Iowa facilities alone will be upwards of $20 million. All of these costs are passed on to farmers, surely forcing some of them out of business.

In addition to the new state regulations affecting farming, other regulations may be implemented that could affect the quality of life of farmers and their families. For example, vehicle inspections and maintenance requirements may be in the offing for many farming states. Restrictions on driving, such as the development of the type of carpooling-only lanes and highways normally reserved for busy metropolitan areas, could also be imposed.

Perhaps recognizing the potentially devastating impact of the new standards on farm states, the Clinton Administration’s own U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has come out against the air standards change, arguing that the more stringent standards are unnecessary. In technical comments on the EPA’s new air quality standards, USDA scientists and economists note: “USDA believes that these regulations [the old standards], in conjunction with new farming methods and technologies, are cost effective emission control strategies that maintain agriculture productivity and competitiveness.”

Despite the costs to American agriculture, despite the USDA’s reservations about the need for the new, tighter standards, the EPA pressed ahead with them anyway. Farmers will pay a high price.

“The agriculture community enjoys breathing clean air as much as anybody, but it doesn’t want to waste money on control measures that have little or no effect on cleaning up the air of this nation,” says Jack Laurie.

The American people should demand no less.


Chad Cowan is deputy director of environmental and regulatory affairs at The National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.