Obama Reverses Course on Smog Rule

Obama changes course on EPA regulation to protect human health from ground level ozone, the main component of smog

In a move that thrilled his GOP opponents and infuriated supporters, president Obama made an unexpected course reversal on Friday scuttling a planned regulation by the EPA to strengthen ground-level ozone (smog) standards, long considered a health risk to millions of Americans.

Yielding to protests from business interests and GOP opponents, Obama cited concerns of imposing more regulatory burdens in a time of “rampant questions about the strength of the US economy” as well as his reluctance to impose stricter clean air regulations when a full review of the smog standard is due in 2013. Whether Obama is still in the White House in 2013 becomes an increasingly open question as the move on Friday is seen as yet another “cave” to his opponents and a “slap across the back of the knees” for his supporters.

The last review of the smog standard came under the Bush EPA in 2008, when president Bush, much like Obama, intervened on a proposed tightening of ground level ozone standards recommended by scientists to protect human health. The EPA then set the standard at 75 parts-per-billion (ppb), stricter than the 1997 standard, but falling well short of the 60-70 ppb the scientific review said was necessary to fully safeguard the American public from the adverse effects of smog. The new rule blocked by Obama was meant to correct the Bush-era move.

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson felt it necessary to take action before the next 2013 scientific review in order to keep the standard in line with the science set forth in 2008. Last March, the EPA’s independent panel of scientific advisors made a unanimous recommendation to Jackson for a tighter smog standard, saying the science was “sufficiently certain” that doing so will benefit human health. In July, Jackson wrote that the Bush-era standards would not hold up in court, saying they are “not legally defensible.”

Obama and his staff were quick to claim the move on Friday was not an abandonment of his own EPA and his commitment to public health and the environment:

“I want to be clear: my commitment and the commitment of my administration to protecting public health and the environment is unwavering,” the president said. “I will continue to stand with the hardworking men and women at the EPA as they strive every day to hold polluters accountable and protect our families from harmful pollution. And my administration will continue to vigorously oppose efforts to weaken EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act or dismantle the progress we have made.”

White House estimates placed the cost of implementing the rule at between $19 and $90 billion annually through 2020, making it one of the most expensive environmental regulations. In doing so, the regulation could, by many estimates, save as much as $100 billion in health care costs.

One Administration official, commenting on condition of anonymity, said the decision was “not a product of industry pressure.” When asked about Speaker of the House John Boehner’s comment that Obama had “done the right thing on one job-killing regulation,” the official said, “this has nothing to do with politics, nothing at all.”

At the same time, it appears to have little to do with the science or protecting human health.


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