Feeling the heat: Obama drops EPA ozone regulations

In a move that stunned friend and foe alike, President Obama on September 2 instructed his own political appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to withdraw (for the time being) new regulations governing ground-level ozone, or smog. The move came amidst growing concerns over the state of the economy and whether tightening the screws on businesses and communities at this time wouldn’t lead to even more unemployment.

The Clean Air Act requires EPA to review what are called National Ambient Air Quality Standards every five years. In January 2008, the Bush administration tightened the national standard for ozone to 75 parts per billion (ppb), even though EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) had recommended an even tougher level, between 60 and 70 ppb. Environmental groups sued EPA, claiming the agency had no scientific basis for the Bush 75 ppb standard. In January 2010, Obama’s EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson accepted the environmentalists’ arguments and ordered the agency to review the matter. EPA was on the verge of reversing the Bush standard and imposing a far more stringent level when Obama abruptly pulled the plug.

EPA Administrator Jackson based her decision on the recommendations of the agency’s Science Advisory Board. But the SAB’s relied on dubious laboratory tests to come up with its findings. Ozone affects humans one way in nature and quite another way in the lab. Laboratory conditions cannot replicate nature. Ozone occurs naturally through such things as vegetation and lightning and it can even be transported to ground level from the stratosphere. Naturally occurring ozone levels vary greatly from region to region, making blanket assumptions about its effect on human health virtually impossible. Finally, in making its case for tighter standards, the SAB appears to have assumed that there is no safe threshold for human exposure. As EPA’s dubious science received wider attention, opposition to the whole scheme spread like wildfire.

With unemployment stuck at 9.1 percent, and the sluggish economy showing no signs of a quick recovery, the White House concluded that the additional economic burdens EPA’s scheme entailed were politically untenable. Indeed, the new ozone standards would have thrown 85 percent of monitored counties – 628 out of 736 – out of compliance with the Clean Air Act, forcing them to take significant steps to reduce smog levels or face stiff federal penalties. As “non-attainment areas” under the Clean Air Act, obtaining permits for new manufacturing facilities or other construction projects would have faced huge and costly delays. State, county, and municipal governments – already cash-strapped as a result of the economic doldrums – were confronting the daunting task of developing mandatory implementation plans to bring their jurisdictions into compliance with EPA’s latest mandate.

It was no secret in Washington that the White House was getting an earful from disgruntled mayors and governors from both parties who voiced serious concerns about what the administration was proposing to do. This was in addition to the howls of protest from businesses already coping with EPA crackdowns on greenhouse gas emissions as well as levels of mercury, and emissions from medium-and heavy-duty trucks. With polls showing environmental concerns a low priority in the current economy, the administration finally got the message.

With more or less a straight face, a White House official told the Washington Post (September 3) that, “This had nothing to do with politics, nothing at all.” On the contrary, the move appears designed to delay an unpopular decision until after the November 2012 election. EPA is scheduled to reconsider a new ozone standard in 2013, and if Obama is re-elected the previous November, the White House will no longer be constrained by how its actions will affect presidential politics. The nation’s communities and businesses may not be off the hook; they may have just been granted a stay of execution.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are fuming over Obama’s decision. Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, accused Obama off “siding with corporate polluters over the American people.” “The Clean Air Act clearly requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set protective standards against smog – based on science and the law,” she told the Washington Times (September 5). “The White House has now polluted that process with politics.”

Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, sees it differently. “If you are serious about a jobs agenda, the last thing you want to be doing is adding tens of billions of costs every year,” he told the Washington Post (September 3). Upton added that under stricter smog standards, communities in his district and across the nation “will lose jobs, and they will never come back.”

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.