When President Obama shelved stricter environmental regulations for ground-level ozone until at least 2013, the administration said that delay was meant to alleviate regulatory pressures on a recovering economy. But former Vice President Al Gore accused Obama of “embracing” a scientifically outdated Bush-era environmental standard, and other critics said that the administration is caving to big polluters.
Many National Journal Energy and Environment Insiders say that President Obama’s retreat on environmental issues isn't over yet.
Over half of Insiders responding said that Obama is likely to delay imposition of other new environmental regulations, with 15 percent calling the prospect “very likely” and 39 percent deeming it “somewhat likely.”
“The only decision metric that matters for the next 14 months is, ‘Will this help us get reelected?’ ” said one Insider. “If a regulatory decision is a liability, we should fully expect the administration to delay until Nov. 7” of 2012—the day after the presidential election.
Another Insider said that Obama “will likely pick and choose by delaying those rules his advisers believe are too politically damaging to pursue before 2013 and finalizing those that he can survive politically.”
Other Insiders said they believed that Obama might back off more Environmental Protection Agency regulations now that he has argued they could be damaging to the economy.
“It is disturbing that he used the ‘regulatory uncertainty’ point when backing off the ozone rules, and that might be a sign that he's willing to back off other rules as well,” another Insider said.
On Sept. 2, when Obama announced the decision to delay tighter ground-level ozone standards for at least two years, he cited the “importance of reducing regulatory burdens.” In contrast, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and EPA air chief Gina McCarthy have repeatedly told Congress that regulations actually could help a struggling economy, citing studies that say environmental spending creates jobs.
One Insider said that Obama “can no longer claim the regulations help the economy,” now that he has identified regulatory burdens as a potential issue for employers.
Nearly half of Insiders responding—46 percent—said they don’t expect further retreat by the White House from EPA rules. And about half of those called further retreat “very unlikely,” with some saying that the ground-level ozone decision actually gives Obama cover to move forward on other fronts.
“I don't think he can afford to do it” politically, one Insider said of any further moves that would anger environmentalists. “He already has his pro-business, political talking point for 2012 with the moves on ozone and Keystone,” referring to the administration’s tentative green light on the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would carry Canada’s tar sands oil to Gulf Coast refineries.
Some lawmakers are set on their own fall agenda to target EPA regulations. Most Insiders said that the EPA’s greenhouse-gas regulations will face the most congressional pushback.
EPA has been planning to issue the first-ever rules that would controlling carbon emissions from electricity-generating power plants by the end of September and for oil refineries by December. Nearly 40 percent of Insiders expect congressional pushback.
The “GOP will target [greenhouse-gas] regulations next not because of economics but because of politics," one Insider maintained.
How likely is it that Obama will retreat on more EPA rules?
- Very Likely 15%
- Somewhat Likely 39%
- Somewhat Unlikely 24%
- Very Unlikely 22%
“Given his reasoning for delaying the smog rules, he can no longer claim the regulations help the economy. Since concern about jobs ranks ahead of desire for additional environmental regulation, he will have to back off some more.”
“Watch out for greenhouse-gas standards.”
“The president will likely pick and choose by delaying those rules his advisers believe are too politically damaging to pursue before 2013 and finalizing those that he can survive politically.”
“[Maximum Achievable Control Technology] and mountaintop mining are bedrock -- everything else is politics.”
“MACT rules will go forward. Protecting kids from air toxics enjoys strong public support. [Greenhouse-gas] regs and aspects of the transport rule are more vulnerable”
“Keep your eye out for movement on Florida water-quality standards and hopefully some more regs identified as crushing by job creators.”
“Maybe on greenhouse gases, but the line seems to be pretty firm on Cross-State and mercury.”
“We've gone from 'hope' and 'change' to hoping Obama doesn't change his mind again.”
“These decisions will become more likely as the economy struggles and the campaign rhetoric ratchets up.”
“Setting new ozone standards were an unnecessary fight; sacrificing them allows EPA to protect primary initiatives.”
“The Cass Sunstein letter explaining the president's ozone decision made it clear that there is no wholesale backing down on EPA regulations. That said, if sufficient bipartisan support evolves on the Hill for a delay on any of these, it is now evident that [White House Chief of Staff William] Daley and Sunstein will take note and factor that in accordingly.”
“I think that the broad ozone rule was easier to 'retreat' on. I'm not expecting soft treatment for the utility sector in the upcoming mercury rule.”
“By pulling the ozone rule, which of course he wasn't even required to do in the first place, Obama gave himself cover to try to push the rest of his regulatory agenda through.”
Which set of EPA rules will face the most pushback from Congress this fall?
- Greenhouse-Gas Regulations 39%
- Mercury Standards for Power Plants 17%
- The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule 12%
- Mercury Standards for Boilers 22%
- None of the Above 10%
“GHG rules, while not likely to actually require much, are too tempting a target for EPA critics."
“GHG regulations are the only ones originating during Obama's term and on less sure footing. All others have been promulgated and litigated during successive administrations.”
“Tough choice between the GHG rules and the boiler rules--the first is a political football and the second has strong negative input from industry. It's such a political time that I'll go with the first.”
“It is easier for EPA to defend rules where they are under court order to produce rules, such as toxics and cross-state air pollution--it should be awkward for Congress to argue EPA should simply ignore the courts and ignore the law.”
“Galileo and truth-telling scientists notwithstanding, the deniers will continue to whip this mule for all it's worth.”
“The GHG regs will be slowed by the administraton itself, but MoC's will still rail against them for politics--the boiler rule is the most likely to actually have action taken because there is open Senate support in moderate places.”
“The climate deniers have taken over the GOP and will continue to try to block EPA from doing anything to curb greehhouse-gas pollution. Lisa Jackson will be looking more and more like Galileo.”
Mercury Standards for Power Plants
“While all of the proposed/contemplated rules will get pushback, the utility toxics rule is seen to present the highest degree of harm to those covered by it. As such, the pushback on it will be the most vociferous.”
“Coal-state Democrats in the Senate will join forces with the Republicans to push back on EPA.”
Mercury Standards for Boilers
“I think the delay in the EPA rule is just a political show that he is willing to compromise. I do not believe this will be a commonplace occurrence.”
“Reasons for pushback on each rule: Mercury standards for boilers (because they affect manufacturers), GHG rules (for symbolic value), utility MACT (because it will shut down old, dirty coal plants) and the cross-state air pollution rule (because of Texas pushback).”
“I think all will face push back from Congress. They'ree most likely to win on boilers because it has the broadet bipartisan support for delay. GHGs will be delayed by administrative issues, CSPR will likely face legal challenges, UMACT is probably the one hear will take a stand on.”
None of the Above
“While the House looks set to block EPA on all of these efforts, the fight will be in the Senate. Are there at least 13 Senate Democrats willing to directly challenge their president and his EPA administrator 12 to 14 months before an election? Will Leader [Harry] Reid even allow a vote on these rules? While there will be intense interest and pushback, these hurdles seem pretty high.”
National Journal’s Energy and Environment Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of energy policy experts. They include:
Jeff Anderson, Paul Bailey, Kenneth Berlin, Denise Bode, Kevin Book, David Brown, Neil Brown, Stephen Brown, Kateri Callahan, McKie Campbell, Guy Caruso, Paul Cicio, Douglas Clapp, Eileen Claussen, Steve Cochran, Phyllis Cuttino, Kyle Danish, Lee Dehihns, Robbie Diamond, Bob Dinneen, Sean Donahue, Jeff Duncan, John Felmy, Mike Ference, David Foster, Josh Freed, Don Furman, Paul Gilman, Richard Glick, Kate Gordon, Chuck Gray, Jason Grumet, Christopher Guith, Lewis Hay, Jeff Holmstead, David Holt, Skip Horvath, Bob Irvin, Bill Johnson, Gene Karpinski, Joseph T. Kelliher, Brian Kennedy, Kevin Knobloch, David Kreutzer, Fred Krupp, Tom Kuhn, Con Lass, Mindy Lubber, Frank Maisano, Drew Maloney, Roger Martella, John McArther, Mike McKenna, Bill McKibben, David Miller, Kristina Moore, Richard Myers, Aric Newhouse, Frank O'Donnell, Mike Olson, T. Boone Pickens, Thomas Pyle, Hal Quinn, Rhone Resch, Barry Russell, Joseph Schultz, Bob Simon, Scott Sklar, Bill Snape, Jeff Sterba, Christine Tezak, Susan Tierney, Andrew Wheeler, Brian Wolff, Franz Wuerfmannsdobler and Todd Young.
This article appears in the September 14, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.