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.”
National environmental groups, anticipating an administration announcement finalizing the ozone regulations, were so confident that they had drafted two media statements, both positive. Instead, advocacy groups issued series of separate rebukes Friday while business organizations lavished praise on the president.
Karen Harned, executive director of the National Federation 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.”
By contrast John Walke, clean-air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “It is outrageous that the president has intervened politically to block the EPA administrator from correcting an unprotective smog standard that she recognizes to be scientifically and legally indefensible.”
The proposed rule was particularly contentious because it could halt or delay the permitting of new industrial facilities if local pollution is too severe. Under a 2001 Supreme Court decision, the EPA is not allowed to take costs into account when setting the ozone standards, but the agency estimated the compliance costs for industry could range from $19 billion to $90 billion a year by 2020 depending on what level is set. It would yield health benefits worth $13 billion to $100 billion, the agency said.
In a phone call with reporters, two White House officials who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak on the record said that the decision was not related to the battle over economic policy and that they would press forward with other air pollution measures.
“This had nothing to do with politics, nothing at all,” one said.
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.”
In many ways, the fall will serve as a critical test of how much the White House is willing to fight for the rest of its environmental agenda. Simpson said “members of both parties have some concerns” about EPA’s push for new air regulations, and he expected the issue could have implications for 2012. “The issue in general, of regulations and their impact on the economy, will be a big issue in the campaign,” he said.
Meanwhile, Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said future rules to limit mercury and greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants “will be critical tests of how serious the administration is when it comes to fighting climate change.”
In a statement, MoveOn.org’s executive director, Justin Ruben, delivered a sterner warning: “Many MoveOn members are wondering today how they can ever work for President Obama’s re-election, or make the case for him to their neighbors, when he does something like this, after extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich, and giving in to Tea Party demands on the debt deal. This is a decision we’d expect from George W. Bush, not from a Democratic President elected to protect the environment and the health of our children.”