White House weakened EPA soot proposal, documents show

The White House recently modified an Environmental Protection Agency proposal to limit soot emissions, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post, inviting public comment on a slightly weaker standard than the agency had originally sought.

The behind-the-scenes tweaking of the proposed soot standards, which affect particles measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, sparked criticism that the White House was interfering with science-based decisions.

Fine particles, which come from oil refineries, factories and other operations, rank among the most deadly widespread air pollutants. The EPA had originally wanted to tighten the annual exposure to fine-particle soot from 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 12 micrograms per cubic meter, according to an e-mail between Office of Management and Budget and EPA officials.

But the OMB directed the EPA to make the limit between 12 and 13 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

Frank O’Donnell, who heads the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, cited the change as “the latest in a pattern of interference by the White House in decisions that rightly belong to EPA, based on science.” Last year President Obama pulled an EPA proposal to impose stricter limits on smog-forming ozone on the grounds that it would be costly and the rules were up for review again starting in 2013.

“If this had been a Bush administration move, every progressive in America would be screaming foul,” O’Donnell added.

But Howard Feldman, who directs regulatory and scientific affairs for the American Petroleum Institute and had sought to keep the soot standard unchanged at 15 micrograms per cubic meter, said the White House had every right to modify the EPA’s proposal. “It’s a policy decision, where to set the standard,” he said.

White House spokesman Clark Stevens said the OMB was in keeping with its mission when it “oversaw the interagency review process prior to the announcement of the proposal and worked closely with EPA to best assess feedback received through that process.”

He said the final standard will be issued after the public comment period, with input from public health groups and industry.

John Walke, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council’s clean-air program, said in an interview that “no White House should interfere with EPA’s scientific view on what is protective of the public health.” But he noted the agency has not issued a final rule and said he was optimistic that the agency would set a strict standard.

The administration is also in the process of defending the Bush administration’s ozone rule in federal court now that Obama has opted to keep it in place. EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson had previously called the Bush rule “not legally defensible.”

A new study by a group of researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that curbing ozone could provide greater benefits than previously thought. The team looked at 20 states and the District of Columbia where power plants and boilers are required to limit nitrogen oxide pollution between May 1 and Sept. 30 each year.

In the period they looked at, from 2003 to 2008, those states and the District cut prescription drug expenditures by 1.9 percent, or $900 million a year, and had 2,200 fewer annual premature deaths among individuals aged 75 or older.

MIT environmental economics professor Michael Greenstone, one of the paper’s authors, said he and other researchers are “cautiously confident” that the drop in ozone levels accounts for the economic benefits they identified.

“This is now new evidence of the evidence of the health benefits of ozone reductions, which was not available when the president overturned the previous effort to revise the ozone standard,” said Greenstone, who has informed White House officials of his findings.

University of California at Berkeley professor Maxmilian Auffhammer, who studies air pollution, said the paper uses real-world data to show how smog reductions can save consumers money on prescription drugs. “The study adds another piece of the benefits pie on the table,” Auffhammer said.

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