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White House mulls stricter smog standards

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The White House is engaged in an intense debate over how much it should tighten national smog standards, an issue that has sparked a battle between business and public health groups.

On Friday the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would “shortly” issue the final rules, which were delayed three times last year and again late last month. As the Office of Management and Budget reviews the agency’s final proposal, which was submitted July 11, business groups have joined many state and local officials in launching a concerted push to delay any new standards until 2013.

Ground-level ozone is formed when emissions from power plants and 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 EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson chose to revisit the standards, the most central of which was set under the George W. 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 primary standard somewhere between 60 and 70 ppb, and indicated she would finalize it that summer.

But the proposed regulations have become contentious, largely because they require counties to keep local pollution in check or risk losing federal funds. While the most polluted areas would have up to 20 years to meet the new standards, business leaders suggest it could delay the permitting of not only new industrial facilities but the expansion of existing ones.

The Washington region has one of the worst ozone problems in the country.

Leaders of some of the nation’s most influential business groups — including the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Chemistry Council — planned to meet this week about the rules with White House chief of staff William M. Daley and OMB officials.

American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said in an interview Saturday that the fact that the rule has not been finalized, as outlined in an agency filing in federal court, “is a positive sign that the adults are in the room, and there’s a serious conversation about a job-destruction regulation.”

He added that because senior Obama administration officials are scrutinizing the proposal, “My hope is now that they’re engaged, they’re going to ask the fundamental question: Why are we doing this to ourselves if we don’t have to?”

In recent weeks state and local officials have complained directly to the White House. John Perdue, West Virginia’s state treasurer, sent a letter to Daley and spoke to a member of his staff in protest.

“We’re an energy-producing state. It’s about our economy; it’s about jobs,” Perdue said in an interview, adding that it made sense to appeal to the White House. “You go to the guy that’s in charge, which is the president of the United States, who could have a major influence on whether these rules become final or not.”

Joseph Stanko, who heads the federal government relations team at Hunton & Williams and represents several companies that would be affected by the standards, said: “The administration is in a real pickle on this one.

“They didn’t anticipate the level of opposition to this,” Stanko said.

Asked about the smog rule, a White House official said: “As no standard has been announced by EPA and the interagency review process led by OMB continues, speculating on any proposed rule is premature. The administration will continue to take steps to protect health, while ensuring those steps are implemented in accordance with the president’s clear priority of maximizing flexibility and not impeding our economic recovery.”

Environmental leaders met with Jackson last month to urge her to move ahead with new smog rules. According to Margie Alt, who serves as executive director of Environment America and attended the meeting, Jackson said she believed in a more restrictive standard but needed advocacy groups to communicate the rule’s importance to the public.

Frank O’Donnell, who heads the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said “there is only one conceivable reason for the delay” in the ozone rules, “political interference by the White House. Every day of delay means many millions of Americans are exposed to dangerous levels of smog that can make them sick and even shorten their lives. The White House political aides and bean counters should let Lisa Jackson do her job.”

According to the EPA, depending on what standards it adopts, the compliance costs for industry could range from $19 billion to $90 billion a year by 2020. The tougher standards would yield health benefits worth $13 billion to $100 billion, the agency said.

OMB is questioning how EPA calculated the benefits side of the equation to see whether they were overestimated, according to sources who had been briefed on the process but asked not to be identified because the rule is not final.

While Bruce Joston, executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wrote in an e-mail that business groups have raised the issue “in the context of the administration’s Jobs and Competitiveness Council . . . we believe if EPA proceeds it will hinder an already anemic economy.”

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