Bowing to Republican and industry pressure and contradicting his top environmental aide, President Obama announced on Friday he was delaying for at least two years one of his administration’s most significant environmental and public health standards.
Obama said he was asking EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to delay until 2013 a tougher smog standard that health and environmental groups—and Jackson herself—have said is critical to protecting public health, especially for children.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Petroleum Institute and other major industry groups have been putting intense pressure on White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley since early July to punt until 2013, arguing that the tougher standard would freeze economic growth and kill jobs. Staring down his reelection path, Obama bowed to that pressure—overruling Jackson and other top EPA officials who kept saying the agency was going to issue the standard this summer.
“I have continued to underscore the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover,” Obama said in a statement on Friday.
“With that in mind, and after careful consideration, I have requested that Administrator Jackson withdraw the draft Ozone [smog] National Ambient Air Quality Standards at this time,” Obama added. “Work is already under way to update a 2006 review of the science that will result in the reconsideration of the ozone standard in 2013. Ultimately, I did not support asking state and local governments to begin implementing a new standard that will soon be reconsidered.”
Obama’s decision quickly drew praise from top GOP lawmakers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“This action alone will prevent more job losses than any speech the president has given, and I hope he will listen to the bipartisan calls from across the country to address his administration’s negative impact on job creation,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement.
Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said it was a “good first step” in rolling back a job-destroying regulation. “But it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to stopping Washington Democrats’ agenda of tax hikes, more government ‘stimulus’ spending, and increased regulations—which are all making it harder to create more American jobs,” Steel said.
“It is worth noting that the president agreed with just about every one of the chamber’s arguments against a new ozone standard,” President and CEO Thomas Donohue said in a statement. “This an enormous victory for America’s job creators, the right decision by the president, and one that will help reduce the uncertainty facing businesses. It’s also a big first step in what needs to be a broader regulatory-reform effort,” Donohue said.
Environmental groups and liberal Democrats were predictably disappointed. Likely offering a glimpse of the pressure Obama will get from the left on the campaign trail, the Sierra Club shot out an e-mail with the subject line: “Sorry kids, Obama delays smog protections until at least 2013.”
The American Lung Association promised to revive its court action against the administration, "which was suspended following numerous assurances that the administration was going to complete this reconsideration and obey the law. We had gone to court because the Bush administration failed to follow the law and set a protective health standard.” Charles Connor, president and CEO of the group, said in a statement.
“By choosing to ignore the recommendations of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, the president is failing to follow the nation’s landmark air pollution law, the Clean Air Act, and therefore failing to protect public health, particularly those most at risk including children, older people, and people who suffer from chronic lung diseases.”
The smog rule would set tougher air-quality standards for states, which in turn would require businesses and localities to reduce their pollution. The new rules would have put many counties nationwide into a regulatory category known as “nonattainment.” That designation might ultimately require businesses to cut air emissions in order for the counties in which they’re located to meet the new federal standards. Critics say that could cripple economic growth in many places. The Obama administration has already delayed the standard several times in the past two years, and Friday’s announcement makes for the biggest delay yet.
White House officials denied that the move was in response to industry pressure or electoral politics. “This is not a product of industry pressure. This is a judgment on the merits,” one official said on a conference call on Friday. “The point is to rely on the current science, rather than 2006 science.”
Boehner sent a letter to the White House last week that asserted the number of administration regulatory actions with a significant impact on jobs and the economy had risen 15 percent since last year. The speaker requested that Obama identify for Congress which of these regulations have an estimated economic impact of more than $1 billion.
In his response, Obama admitted that the ozone air-quality standard he is now asking the EPA to withdraw is among seven proposed rules that would cost upwards of $1 billion to implement, Steel said in an e-mailed statement to reporters.
The back-and-forth is a sign of what could be many testy months ahead between Republicans who control the House and the administration over whether the White House’s rhetoric over reducing regulatory burdens matches its actions. At the core of this tension lies Republican anxiety over President Obama’s ability to push new policies through without congressional input.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced on Monday that tackling “job-destroying” regulations will be a House Republican focus this fall. Congressional Democrats, including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, have characterized the GOP focus on regulations as evidence that Republicans “do not have a real, comprehensive jobs agenda."
The White House officials said on the conference call that Jackson and Obama were on the same page. She “has reconsidered and accepted the president’s own judgment, which is that this should not move forward,” one of the officials said.
In a statement, Jackson hailed the progress EPA has made on several other major clean-air rules, yet did not comment on Obama’s decision to punt the ozone standard, other than to say the agency will “revisit the ozone standard, in compliance with the Clean Air Act.”
Obama in his statement and his top aides on the conference call vowed to fight GOP efforts to delay other clean-air regulations. The first test of this promised commitment will come at the end of this month, when EPA is expected to announce draft regulations to control climate-change-related pollution from power plants. The agency continues to say it will issue them by Sept. 26, but it said the same thing about the ozone standard, which the White House ultimately pulled the plug on despite EPA.
Sophie Quinton and Billy House contributed