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Editorial

In the 2012 campaign, environmentalists don't matter

That's the message President Obama is sending as the administration caters to smokestack and other industries.

May 20, 2011

Shortly after his party's "shellacking" in the midterm election, President Obama ordered government agencies to ensure that new regulations took economic growth into consideration and that old ones be revoked if they "stifle job creation or make our economy less competitive." Five months later, it's becoming pretty clear what he meant: The environment and public health will be thrown under a bus for the sake of his reelection in 2012.

The latest victim of the administration's new political direction is a proposed Environmental Protection Agency rule to limit emissions from industrial boilers, which power oil refineries, chemical plants and other factories. The EPA indefinitely rescinded the proposal this week, citing Obama's January executive order on regulations and claiming that the agency hadn't had time to properly address industry concerns about the rule since a draft was released in September. The EPA first proposed a version of the boiler rules in 2004, and it has had ample time and input to get it right by now.

Also put on a slow track by the administration are new rules on storing toxic coal ash, an issue EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said she'd address in the wake of a disastrous Tennessee spill in 2008; earlier this month, EPA officials said they wouldn't get around to finishing the rules, which were expected by the end of last year, until at least 2012. The powerful coal industry scored another victory when the administration delayed an EPA guideline on mountaintop-removal mining last month.

In the calculus of presidential politics, environmentalists don't much matter in 2012. The economy is the top subject on Americans' minds, and Obama no doubt figures he can blunt criticism of his regulatory record and maybe corral some independent voters by cutting smokestack industries a little slack. Never mind that the economic calculus doesn't pencil out; according to EPA estimates, the rule on industrial boilers would cost polluters $1.4 billion a year, but the value of its health benefits would range from $22 billion to $54 billion. And never mind that the rule would prevent up to 6,500 premature deaths each year.

But those are moral and financial reasons to regulate, not political ones. Here's an argument Obama and his political advisors might grasp: It's possible for a president to so alienate his base that it fails to show up on election day. Something to keep in mind before November 2012 rolls around.

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