Facing fierce resistance from congressional Republicans, industry and some local officials, President Obama abruptly pulled back proposed smog standards Friday that would have compelled states and communities nationwide to reduce local air pollution or face federal penalties.
Key GOP lawmakers including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) had identified the Environmental Protection Agency’s restrictions for ground-level ozone, along with other air pollution regulations they described as “job-destroying,” as targets for a regulatory rollback this fall. Members of the business community had launched an all-out public relations blitz against the rules, saying that they should be delayed in light of the economic downturn.
Obama’s decision was announced shortly after disheartening employment numbers were released Friday morning. It drew harsh reaction from environmentalists and their allies — including a statement from MoveOn.org questioning why its members should work for the president’s reelection — highlighting the dangers the White House faces as it seeks middle ground among competing interests.
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 because they were scheduled to be reconsidered two years from now anyway.
“I have continued to underscore the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover,” 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 sunlight. Smog can cause or aggravate such health problems as asthma and heart disease, and it has been linked to premature death.
The federal government normally reviews the standards for ground-level ozone — a “primary” standard for public health and a “secondary” one aimed at the environment — every five years. The George W. Bush administration set the primary standard at 75 parts per billion in March 2008, but Jackson chose to revisit the standards early because that level was significantly higher than the 60 to 70 parts per billion recommended by the EPA’s scientific advisory committee at the time.
In January 2010, Jackson announced that she would set the standard between 60 and 70 parts per billion. In July, she informed the Senate that the Bush ozone standards — which will now remain in place — “were not legally defensible given the scientific evidence in the record” of the current rulemaking.
Jackson and White House Chief of Staff William M. Daley called leaders of the environmental community Friday morning to alert them to Obama’s decision. Daley spoke to his high school and college classmate Charles D. Connor, who heads the American Lung Association and whose group had suspended a lawsuit over the Bush ozone rules while Jackson reviewed the standards.
“For two years, the administration dragged its feet by delaying its decision, unnecessarily putting lives at risk. Its final decision not to enact a more protective ozone health standard is jeopardizing the health of millions of Americans, which is inexcusable,” Connor said in a statement, adding that his association will revive its lawsuit against the administration.
Friday’s decision “leaves me with more questions than answers,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), who chairs the Senate’s clean-air subcommittee. He said he would hold hearings with White House officials “to explain these actions and the possible ramifications.”
The ozone standard is one of several air-quality rules the administration is 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.
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who heads the House Appropriations subcommittee on the interior, environment and related agencies, said in interviews this week that they will try to block regulations they consider a threat to economic recovery.
“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.”