President Obama abruptly pulled back proposed new national smog standards Friday morning, overruling the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to compel states and communities nationwide to reduce local air pollution in the coming years or face federal penalties.
The move represented a win for the business community, which had lobbied to postpone new restrictions on ground-level ozone—known as smog—until 2013 in light of the current economic downturn. It also raised questions about the fate of several other controversial air quality regulations EPA is preparing to finalize this year.
In a statement, Obama praised EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson’s effort to improve the nation’s air quality, but said he had asked her to withdraw the draft standards since they were scheduled to be reconsidered two years from now anyway.
“Work is already underway to update a 2006 review of the science that will result in the reconsideration of the ozone standard in 2013,” Obama said. “Ultimately, I did not support asking state and local governments to begin implementing a new standard that will soon be reconsidered.”
Ground-level ozone is formed when emissions from power plants, other industrial facilities, vehicles and landfills react in the sunlight. Smog can cause or aggravate health problems such as asthma and heart disease, and it has been linked to premature death.
The federal government normally reviews the standards for ground-level ozone—which includes a ”primary” one for public health and a “secondary” one aimed at the environment-- every five years. But Jackson chose to revisit the standard, which was set under the Bush administration at 75 parts per billion in March 2008, because that level was significantly higher than the 60 to 70 ppb recommended by the EPA’s scientific advisory committee at the time.
In January 2010, Jackson announced that she would set the standard somewhere between 60 and 70 parts per billion. Last month Jackson testified before the Senate that the Bush ozone standards-which will now remain in place for at least a few years “were not legally defensible given the scientific evidence in the record” of the current rulemaking.
The ozone standard is one of several air quality rules the administration is either in the process of adopting or has already finalized that are under attack. Others include new limits on mercury and air toxins, greenhouse gases from power plants, and a range of emissions from industrial boilers, oil refineries, cement plants and other sources.
Key GOP lawmakers, including House Energy and Commerce Committee Fred Upton (Mich.) and Mike Simpson (Idaho), who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, said in interviews this week they will try to block regulations they see as a threat to economic recovery.
House Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) identified several of these regulations as targets for a regulatory rollback the House will vote on this month, and House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) spokesman Michael Steel hailed Obama’s decision Friday as “a good first step.”
“If you’re serious about a jobs agenda, the last thing you want to be doing is adding tens of billions of dollars in costs every year,” said Upton, who added that under stricter smog standards communities in his district and across the nation “will lose these jobs, and they will never come back.”
Karen Harned, executive director of the National Federal of Independent Business’s Small Business Legal Center, wrote in an e-mail, “It’s encouraging to see the administration finally recognizes that this would have been the worst possible time to implement such a burdensome new rule… The White House needs to continue to look at many of these new rules, not just rules that are already on the books, to make sure they are not impeding the ability of small business to create jobs and lead the nation’s economic recovery.”
Environmentalists condemned Obama’s move in the harshest terms.
“Obama utterly caved,” declared Bill Snape of the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity. Daniel J. Weiss of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said, “It’s unfortunate that the administration is siding with big oil over the health of children, seniors, and the infirm.”
The proposed rule was particularly contentious because it requires counties to keep local pollution in check or risk losing federal funds, thereby halting or delaying the permitting of new industrial facilities. According to the EPA, depending on what standard it adopted, the compliance costs for industry could range from $19 billion to $90 billion a year by 2020. The tougher standard would yield health benefits worth $13 billion to $100 billion, the agency said
In a telephone call with reporters, two White House officials who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak on the record said political factors played no role in the smog decision. They said they would resist efforts to block upcoming regulations such as one that would cut mercury and other air toxics from power plants. League of Conservation Voters president Gene Karpinski said that proposal “goes to the heart” of U.S. policy on greenhouse gas emissions.
“The administration has a very significant record of success when it comes to protecting public health and the environment,” one White House official said. “We are committed to that agenda.”
But a Democratic lobbyist with refinery interests who had candid conversations with political operatives within the White House and the Obama re-election campaign about the smog rule said senior administration officials were wary of pressing for the smog rule in light of the sluggish economy. The lobbyist asked not to be identified because he works on the issue.
“The political shop at the White House and the campaign never wanted to do this rule and the jobs numbers this morning provided the final straw that broke EPA’s back on this,” the lobbyist wrote in an e-mail.
Rich Gold, who chairs the public policy group at the law firm Holland & Knight, said the Obama administration has found itself in an unenviable position.
“The reality is everything EPA is doing is laudable in terms of positive health and environmental outcomes,” Gold said in an interview. “The problem is we’re trying to do it when we’re coming out of the deepest economic recession since the Great Depression.”