President Obama yields on smog rule

WASHINGTON (AP) - In a dramatic reversal, President Barack Obama
on Friday scrubbed a clean-air regulation that aimed to reduce
health-threatening smog, yielding to bitterly protesting businesses
and congressional Republicans who complained the rule would kill
jobs in America's ailing economy.
Withdrawal of the proposed regulation marked the latest in a
string of retreats by the president in the face of GOP opposition,
and it drew quick criticism from liberals. Environmentalists, a key
Obama constituency, accused him of caving to corporate polluters,
and the American Lung Association threatened to restart the legal
action it had begun against rules proposed by President George W.
Bush.
The White House has been under heavy pressure from GOP lawmakers
and major industries, which have slammed the stricter standard as
an unnecessary jobs killer. The Environmental Protection Agency,
whose scientific advisers favored the tighter limits, had predicted
the proposed change would cost up to $90 billion a year, making it
one of the most expensive environmental regulations ever imposed in
the U.S.
However, the Clean Air Act bars the EPA from considering the
costs of complying when setting public health standards.
Obama said his decision was made in part to reduce regulatory
burdens and uncertainty at a time of rampant questions about the
strength of the U.S. economy.
Underscoring the economic concerns: a new report Friday that
showed the economy essentially adding no jobs in August and the
unemployment rate stubbornly stuck at 9.1 percent.
The regulation would have reduced concentrations of ground-level
ozone, the main ingredient in smog, a powerful lung irritant that
can cause asthma and other lung ailments. Smog is created when
emissions from cars, power and chemical plants, refineries and
other factories mix in sunlight and heat.
Republican lawmakers, already emboldened by Obama's concessions
on extending Bush-era tax cuts and his agreement to more than $1
trillion in spending reductions as the price for raising the
nation's debt ceiling, had pledged to try to block the stricter
smog standards as well as other EPA regulations when they returned
to Washington after Labor Day.
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had muted
praise for the White House Friday, saying that withdrawal of the
smog regulation was a good first step toward removing obstacles
that are blocking business growth.
"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," said Boehner spokesman
Michael Steel.
Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said
the move was "an enormous victory for America's job creators, the
right decision by the president and one that will help reduce the
uncertainty facing businesses."
White House officials said the president's decision was not the
product of industry pressure, and they said the administration
would continue to fight other efforts by Republicans to dismantle
the EPA's authority.
But that was little consolation for many of the president's
supporters. The group MoveOn.org issued a scathing statement,
saying Obama's decision was one it would have expected from his
Republican predecessor.
"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," said Justin Ruben, the group's executive
director.
The American Lung Association, which had sued the EPA over
Bush's smog standards, said it would resume its legal fight now
that Obama was essentially endorsing the weaker limit. The group
had suspended its lawsuit after the Obama administration pledged to
change it.
Obama's decision, in fact, mirrors one made by Bush in 2008.
After EPA scientists recommended a stricter standard to better
protect public health, Bush personally intervened after hearing
complaints from electric utilities and other affected industries.
His EPA set a standard of 75 parts per billion, stricter than one
adopted in 1997, but not as strong as federal scientists said was
needed to protect public health.
In March, the EPA's independent panel of scientific advisers
sent a letter to the agency's administrator, Lisa Jackson, saying
it was its unanimous recommendation to make the smog standards
stronger and that the evidence was "sufficiently certain" that
the range proposed in January 2010 under Obama would benefit public
health.
But the White House, which has pledged to base decisions on
science, said Friday the science behind its initial decision needed
to be updated, a process already under way at EPA. The smog
standard now is to be revised until 2013.
Whether Obama still occupies the White House at that point
depends on the outcome of next year's presidential election.
Cass Sunstein, the head of the White House regulatory office,
said changing the smog regulation now, only to have it be
reconsidered again in two years, would create unnecessary
uncertainty for the private sector and local governments.
The stricter limits initially proposed by Obama would have
doubled the number of counties in violation. Smoggy cities such as
Los Angeles and Houston would have been joined by counties in
California's Napa Valley and one in Kansas with a population of
3,000. They would have had up to 20 years to meet the new limits,
once EPA settled on a final number, or would have faced federal
penalties.
In his statement, the president said scrapping the stronger smog
standards did not reflect a weakening of his commitment to
protecting public health and the environment.
"I will continue to stand with the hardworking men and women at
the EPA as they strive every day to hold polluters accountable and
protect our families from harmful pollution," Obama said.
Even before Friday's decision - announced as many Americans were
paying more attention to their Labor Day weekend plans than the
news - the White House has faced some criticism for its record on
the environment. Obama abandoned a campaign pledge to set the
first-ever limits on the pollution blamed for global warming, and
he announced an expansion of offshore drilling before the Gulf oil
spill sidelined those plans.
However, he has successfully taken other steps to reduce air
pollution, such as doubling fuel efficiency standards for cars and
light trucks, clamping down on pollution from power plants that
blows downwind and setting the first national standard for mercury,
a toxic metal, from power plants, all in the face of Republican and
industry opposition.
The ground-level ozone standard is closely associated with
public health - something the president said he wouldn't compromise
in his regulatory review.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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