The Obama administration's decision to tighten federal ozone standards this week marked departure from the president's previous thinking on the regulations, though not as dramatic a shift as environmentalists had hoped.
Four years ago, Obama disappointed public health organizations and green groups when he decided to stop the EPA's work on overhauling the standard.
“There was an eruption of outrage across the country, from the president’s base, from newspapers, editorial boards,” John Walke, the director of the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council said.
“It was easily the most controversial, worst environmental and public health decision of his first term.”
At the time, Obama argued the economy was too weak to risk a strict new limit on ozone pollution. He punted on finalizing the new limits until Thursday, when the EPA tightened the standard on ozone-causing chemicals from 75 to 70 parts per billion on Thursday. The decision prompted consternation from both industry groups opposed to the cost of reaching the standard and a clean air advocacy coalition that had hoped the new limits would go even further.
The administration defended the rule from against criticism, with EPA administrator Gina McCarthyGina McCarthyObama EPA chief: Pruitt must uphold ‘law and science’ Overnight Energy: Congress does away with Obama coal mining rule GOP suspends rules to push through EPA pick despite Dem boycott MORE contending the standard is based on reams of scientific evidence that proved 70 parts per billion to be an acceptable ozone limit for healthy adults.
But in 2011, the EPA, under then-administrator Lisa Jackson, wanted to go even further, proposing a standard of 65 parts per billion, based on research the Bush administration used when analyzing the standard back in 2008.
Obama told the EPA to hold off. He acknowledged that he didn’t want to create more regulatory requirements at a time — fall 2011 — when the economy was sputtering.
“I have continued to underscore the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover,” he said in a statement then.
“Ultimately, I did not support asking state and local governments to begin implementing a new standard that will soon be reconsidered.”
The decision was bitterly opposed by environment and health groups.
“We completely disagreed with that,” said Janice Nolen, the assistant vice president for national policy at the American Lung Association.
The Clean Air Act calls for a scientific assessment of ozone standards, not an economic one, she said.
“The evidence that was being touted out, then and now, that this is going to hurt the economy simply doesn’t bear up in any review,” Nolen said.
Following Obama’s decision, the EPA was scheduled to draft a new ozone standard in 2013. The process was delayed, and environmental groups eventually sued to get a new rule from the agency.
The EPA proposed a limit of between 65 and 70 parts per billion last year, and took comments on plans as low as 60 parts per billion, a level within the range long recommended by the agency’s scientific board.
Manufacturers launched another lobbying blitz against the rule, arguing that ozone levels were decreasing on their own and that new regulations would instead drive more segments of the U.S. into nonattainment. They had hoped Obama would do as he did in 2011 and keep the standard unchanged.
The White House defended the rulemaking on Thursday. Obama spokesman Josh Earnest noted that the economy has tripled in size over the past 40 years, a period when ozone levels have fallen by 70 percent.
He framed the ozone rule in language Obama has become increasingly comfortable with: that the private sector needs to come to terms with the prospect of greening their operations.
“The president would make a pretty strong case to you that there is a sound economic incentive for the United States and industries in the United States to be more focused on investments in renewable and clean energy,” Earnest said.
That isn’t enough for green groups and health organizations, who say the administration should have gone even further.
“We are disappointed with the standard, but we recognize that 70 is going to provide more protection than 75,” said Molly Rauch, the public health policy director for Moms Clean Air Force.
“Some of our communities will be breathing easier. We’re calling it a modest step.”
EPA’s McCarthy justified the level this week, and said her decision was easier to make now than when Jackson considered upgrading the standard in 2011.
At the time, the EPA was reviewing research used to craft the Bush-era rule in 2008. Since then, “1,000 more studies” have come out on ozone, McCarthy said.
“When you look at these studies, as I did in making my decision, I think it was very clear to me that 70 was the standard that we should land, based on the science available to us today, and to me today,” McCarthy told reporters on Thursday.
“This is really all about making the right health-based decision based on the science available to me. This will be a significant step forward, and certainly not one that’s based on anything other than science and the law.”
Obama’s embrace of the ozone limit means the fight will turn next to Congress and the courts.
In 2008, both sides sued the EPA over its 75 parts per billion standard, but the rule stood. Neither side was pushing litigation immediately on Thursday, but they’ve hinted this week that it will likely come.
Instead industry is looking first to Congress, pushing lawmakers to take steps blocking the regulation legislatively. Some, including the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said that would be coming soon.
“The only way we’re going to see relief from this draconian regulation — that will destroy jobs and that will destroy the quality of life in this country — is for Congress to step in and do their job we need time and we need flexibility,” National Association of Manufacturers President Jay Timmons said Thursday.
Such an effort will put those on the other side of the issue in an odd spot: defending a rule they don’t particularly like themselves.
“I think we’re going to be in a position to defend what we consider a modest step forward,” Rauch said.
“To find that our communities and our kids have to scramble to hold on tightly to even this modest standard is frustrating.”