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Delays of EPA rules anger environmentalists

December 11, 2010|By Neela Banerjee, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — A recent spate of decisions by the Obama administration to delay crucial pollution regulations is helping mend fences with an alienated business community but is angering the president's allies in the environmental movement that helped him to victory in 2008.

Among the rules that the Environmental Protection Agency has delayed implementing have been stronger restrictions on air pollution and coal ash residue.

The delays come even as the administration and the agency are finding support in the courts. On Friday, a federal appeals court in Washington denied an effort led by Texas to stop the agency's regulation of greenhouse gases.

Still, energized congressional Republicans and their corporate allies relentlessly accuse the EPA of introducing legislation that they assert kills jobs, a claim they believe could resonate deeply with voters in a weak economy.

Moreover, new Republican leaders of key committees in the House of Representatives have vowed to scrutinize all major EPA regulations.

The White House and the EPA strongly deny that the delays are politically motivated, and they moved to shut down increasing speculation that the administration might back off upcoming rules to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.

"If legislation comes to the president's desk that backtracks on regulation of greenhouse gases, his senior advisors would recommend a veto," said a White House official. "That's our position today and that will be our position in the future."

But business groups, such as the American Petroleum Institute and National Assn. of Manufacturers, welcomed the delays as a mea culpa by the administration for making what they call hasty decisions on environmental regulation. Business groups expect the EPA to retreat as congressional investigations loom.

"I think it's fair commentary that the administration is beginning to express sensitivity that environmental regulations that are not carefully balanced can have a substantial impact on the economic recovery of the country," said Scott Segal, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist for utilities and energy industries.

"Part of what you are seeing is conciliatory gestures meant to gird the loins of EPA when they're put through their paces with tough but fair questioning during the new Congress," Segal said.

Some environmentalists worry that these are the first signals of retrenchment, if not capitulation.

"The administration is not willing to defend its own decisions because it's become a matter of political convenience," said James Pew, a lawyer for Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm whose clients have sued the EPA.

The delays emerged against the backdrop of an actively conciliatory White House, as Obama sought to win back independents and business by extending all the Bush-era tax cuts in return for a Republican agreement to continue unemployment benefits.

Just as crucial but less noticed, a top White House official, Cass Sunstein, recently talked about efforts by the Office of Management and Budget to protect business interests during the EPA's rule-making process.

Sunstein's comments infuriated some environmentalists and administration officials who said he gave credence to the notion that the EPA does not take cost into account when devising regulation. The EPA said it does cost-benefit analyses and consults with business during rule-making.

"He's really playing into this false narrative that the EPA is a rogue agency that needs to be pulled back," said a senior administration official who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The delayed regulations already are years overdue, caused in large part by resistance from business and inaction by past administrations.

In one instance, the EPA asked for more time to introduce rules limiting pollutants from industrial power plants at major factories whose unregulated emissions of dioxins and other substances result in what the EPA said are nearly 5,000 premature deaths a year.

The EPA said it would need 15 more months to revise the rules because of new information it got during the public comment period, an extension environmentalists consider unusually long.

While business is heartened by the delays in the regulations, Segal said, the substance of those regulations still might turn out to be too stringent for most corporations to embrace.

"It's not for us to compromise on these issues," he said.

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