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Obama asks EPA to back off draft ozone standard

September 02, 2011|By Neela Banerjee
(Ricardo Moraes / Reuters )

President Obama Friday asked the Environmental Protection Agency to drop the development of controversial rules to cut smog levels, pleasing the business community but upsetting environmentalists.

The business community and the Republican Party have loudly decried the possibility of more stringent rules on ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog, as job-killers.

But to Obama’s environmental base, the decision to back down from the ozone rules was the latest in a string of decisions and signals that suggest to them that the administration is backing away from key anti-pollution initiatives before the 2012 election to court business and anti-regulation voters.

Late last week, the State Department issued an environmental impact statement that removed a key hurdle to the construction of the widely criticized Keystone Xl oil pipeline. For two weeks now, hundreds of environmentalists, some of them former campaign workers for Obama, have been arrested for protesting the pipeline in front of theWhite House.

In a statement, the president said: "I have continued to underscore the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover. With that in mind, and after careful consideration, I have requested that Administrator [Lisa] Jackson withdraw the draft Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards at this time."

"Work is already underway 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," the statement concluded.

Low-level atmospheric ozone occurs when sunlight reacts with air containing hydrocarbons and emissions like nitrogen oxide. Research shows that living in areas with high concentrations of ozone worsens respiratory ailments. The EPA estimates that up to 12,000 lives could be saved annually from heart attacks, lung disease and asthma attacks by implementing the new standards.

After agreeing to work with environmentalists who had sued over the standards, the EPA has delayed issuing rules on low-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog, four times since 2010. Most recently, it brushed aside a self-imposed July 29 deadline.  At least one of the plaintiffs in the EPA case that was suspended, the American Lung Association, said it planned to revive the litigation.

Environmental groups swiftly criticized the decision as the most recent surrender by the administration to the business lobby. "The Obama administration is caving to big polluters at the expense of protecting the air we breathe," said League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski. "This is a huge win for corporate polluters and huge loss for public health."

Business groups welcomed the move as protecting job growth. "The president's decision is good news for the economy and Americans looking for work," said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, the country's leading oil and gas lobby. "EPA's proposal would have prevented the very job creation that President Obama has identified as his top priority. Ozone levels and air quality continue to improve under current regulations and our industry is committed to making the air we all breathe cleaner while creating new jobs."

House Speaker John Boehner called the move a "good first step."

"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," he said.

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