Obama pledges to stand by EPA

President Obama reassured employees at the Environmental Protection Agency Tuesday that he will stand by their work amid growing attacks from Republicans and a decision by the White House last year to scuttle the agency’s smog regulations.

“I want you to know that you’ve got a president who is grateful for your work and will stand with you every inch of the way as you carry out your mission to make sure we’ve got a cleaner world,” Obama told EPA staff during a visit the agency’s headquarters.

Obama also took a jab at Republicans and industry groups, who have mounted a massive campaign to delay or block a slew of EPA regulations, arguing they will burden the economy and cost jobs.

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“I don’t buy the notion that we have to make a choice between having clean air and clean water and growing this economy in a robust way,” Obama said. “I think that is a false debate.”

The speech Tuesday was aimed partly at boosting morale at the agency, which suffered a brutal defeat when Obama punted on highly anticipated regulations aimed at lowering ozone pollution.

“I cold not be prouder of the work that you do every single day as federal employees,” Obama said. “I know these jobs are demanding, but I also know what compelled you to enter public service in the first place and that’s the idea that you can make a difference.”

But the remarks were also intended to deliver a clear message to the Republican White House hopefuls – who have made bashing the EPA a top priority – that Obama doesn’t intend to shy away from environmental issues on the campaign trail.

Obama, who was greeted with loud cheers and applause by EPA staff, praised the agency for crafting national standards to limit mercury and other toxic air pollutants from power plants that have been linked to developmental disorders and childhood asthma.

“Because we acted, we’re going to prevent thousands of premature deaths, thousands of heart attacks and cases of childhood asthma,” he said.

Obama never mentioned his decision to kill the agency’s ozone rules directly, but he referenced the inevitability of tensions over regulations.

“That doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be some tensions, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be some legitimate debates taking place,” he said, adding that EPA must ensure that its regulations are efficient.

“There’s not a federal agency that can’t get better and get smarter in accomplishing our mission,” he said.

When unveiling the mercury standards last month, Obama sought to reassure Republicans and industry executives, who have alleged that the regulations will cause so many power plants to shut down that the reliability of the country’s power grid could be compromised.

He issued a presidential memorandum calling on EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to “address any concerns with respect to electric reliability.”

Obama praised Jackson’s leadership at the agency Tuesday.

“She has done an extraordinary job leading this agency,” Obama told EPA employees. “Not only is she good on policy, not only is she tough and able to present EPA’s mission to the public, but she also has your back.”

Updated at 3:38 p.m.