A mountaintop removal site at Kayford Mountain in West Virginia. (Jeff Gentner / Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — The Obama administration has decided to delay a rule that would cut emissions from power plants at major industrial facilities, the most recent in a series of decisions since the midterm election to postpone controversial environmental regulations and steer a more business-friendly course.
The Environmental Protection Agency's decision Monday about the rule comes three days after President Obama announced plans to open more domestic territory to oil and gas drilling.
FOR THE RECORD:
The subheadline on an earlier online version of this article erred in stating that the emission rule in question would affect "power plants." As this corrected version notes, the rule would apply to power plants at major industrial facilities. Specifically, that means boilers that produce heat and power at such facilities.
Since December, the administration has slowed review and implementation of several closely watched regulations, including two affecting the powerful coal industry: ash disposal and mountaintop-removal mining. Late last week, the agency said it would reconsider parts of a September 2010 rule to limit toxic emissions from cement plants that has been targeted by industry and members of Congress.
Business lobbies and congressional Republicans began battering Obama during the midterm election, asserting that new environmental regulations would kill jobs. It's unlikely that the decisions on drilling and the air pollution rule will win over critics, but they help the Obama team blunt criticism about overreaching regulatory efforts — a topic that could resonate with voters if the economy remains weak during next year's campaign.
"There may be some who feel if they kick the can down the road, they buy themselves more time to avoid some of the political controversy surrounding some of their recent actions," said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Assn. of Clean Air Agencies, a trade group of state regulators.
The on-site power plant rule was delayed more than a decade until court decisions pushed the EPA to develop a regulation. The Obama administration proposed its rule in April 2010, saying that as many as 4,800 premature deaths a year from respiratory ailments could be avoided by 2013 if such pollutants as mercury, dioxins and lead were cut from the country's 13,600 industrial power plants.
Dozens of legislators protested the rule, and industry flooded the EPA with complaints. By the end of 2010, the EPA pleaded with the court for at least another year to incorporate those comments into the rule, which was denied. The agency issued a less-stringent version of the rule in March, and on Monday rescinded it for reconsideration.
It remains unclear when the EPA will issue a new rule, which would go into effect three years later to give industry time to prepare.
In a statement, the EPA said it was acting in accordance with a January executive order Obama signed that sought to weed out burdensome regulation. Many environmentalists saw the policy as a peace offering to industry and congressional Republicans.
Robert D. Bessette, president of the Council of Industrial Boiler Owners, said the delay would offer the EPA a chance to develop regulations that would be "reasonable and scientifically based."
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called the delay "welcome news," adding, "Our environmental goals need to be in step with our economic realities."
Some analysts cautioned against reading political motivations into the administration's delay of environmental rules and its embrace of drilling. But others saw a sharp retreat for an administration that arrived in 2009 determined to improve environmental oversight.
"I think we've come a long way downhill in two years since the administration came in vowing to protect communities from toxic pollution," said James Pew of Earthjustice, who successfully sued the EPA to implement the power plant rule.
Allies and critics alike said they would watch to see whether the criticism about regulatory overreach swayed the administration. In the coming months, key rules are expected on utilities, refineries and other major polluters.