Obama retreats on ozone and greenhouse gas regulations amid economic concerns, earning the ire of traditional sympathisers


Economic woes and pressure to create jobs in the US are impeding environmental regulation, resulting in President Obama being rebuked by traditional allies and applauded by political opponents.

This month the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has retreated on regulations to control ozone and greenhouse gas emissions. Former vice president Al Gore and groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) have attacked the President for his decision. 

Smog ozone regulations Philadelphia

Environmental regulations are under siege thanks to tough times in the US

Conflict erupted on 15 September when the EPA said it won’t meet the 30 September deadline for greenhouse gas regulations for power plants, after Obama ordered the agency to withdraw a proposal to reduce acceptable ozone levels from 0.75ppm to 0.7ppm or less.

In 2008, the EPA recommended that ground ozone should be within the range of 0.6-0.7ppm, after former President Bush set the standard at 0.75ppm.

Revisiting ozone

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson delayed the ozone standards, but promised to revisit them in 2013. In July, Jackson argued that the current Bush era standards for ozone are ’not legally defensible given the scientific record’. 

Obama said he withdrew the ozone rule to reduce regulatory burdens during tough economic times. He added that he didn’t want to ask state and local governments to begin implementing a new standard that could be revised. 

Defending his decision, Obama touted his administration’s ’strong actions’ to protect the environment and human health, citing efforts to reduce mercury and other toxic air pollution from outdated power plants and to double automobile fuel efficiency. He also vowed to ’vigorously oppose’ attempts to weaken the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act. But even Obama’s traditional sympathisers weren’t convinced. 

Gore, a renowned environmental activist, said Obama ’bowed to pressure from polluters who did not want to bear the cost of implementing new restrictions’. NRDC also accused Obama of ’siding with corporate polluters over the American people,’ pointing out that the EPA is required to set protective standards based on science, not cost considerations. In addition, UCS said his decision means that ground-level ozone standards will ’remain outside the scientifically acceptable range’. 

Republican lawmakers, chemical industry celebrate

Meanwhile, Obama’s action on ozone is being celebrated by Republican lawmakers and industry groups. The American Chemistry Council (ACC) and Republican leaders painted the ozone and newly-delayed emissions regulations as job killers. They are also targeting EPA rules that propose new air emissions standards for boilers and commercial and industrial solid waste incinerators - which the agency delayed in May - as well as the EPA’s air pollution rule (CSPAR) that requires states to reduce air pollutants from power plants.

CSPAR was described as an example of the EPA’s ’regulatory assault on American jobs’ during a 15 September hearing of the House’s science and technology committee. The panel’s chairman, Republican Ralph Hall from Texas, noted that companies in his state announced that they would have to cut jobs because of this rule. In fact, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus said on 12 September that the rule has cost 500 Texans their jobs.

But concerns about environmental regulations hurting jobs are refuted by an August report from the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, which found that clean fuels standard could increase employment by roughly 9000 to 50,000 jobs. A separate report that same month by NRDC and others showed that vehicle emissions standards and clean vehicle R&D are already responsible for 155,000 jobs at 504 facilities across the US. The report concluded that 119,000 jobs were created in this industry since 2009. 

Regulatory tension

’There is a tension between job creation and regulation that makes R&D and commercialisation of products more expensive,’ says Henry Miller, a former official with the US Food and Drug Administration who is now at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank. He tells Chemistry World that the EPA is ’often illogical and excessive’. For example, Miller says the agency’s regulation of genetically modified organisms has ’killed whole sectors of promising technology’. 

But, Craig Oren, an environmental lawyer at Rutgers University who served on several US National Academy of Sciences panels that addressed Clean Air Act issues, says estimates for implementing environmental regulations are notoriously high, but industry always finds better and cheaper ways to meet new standards by the time they come into force.

In particular, Oren says concerns about the economic impact of the now withdrawn ozone rule were excessive because the new standards wouldn’t go into effect for several years. ’The administration might be overreacting to a short-term situation,’ Oren says. ’It would be hard to explain why the EPA disregarded the conclusion of its own scientific panel.’

Environmental advocates worry that the administration’s recent actions set a dangerous precedent for other science-based public health and environmental protections, but others are more enthusiastic. 

’We think this bodes well,’ says Don Norman, an economist at the US Manufacturers Alliance. ’At least for the time being, the administration is paying attention to not only the benefits of environmental regulations, but the costs.’

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Europe