By Timothy Cama and Tim Devaney - 10/12/14 10:00 AM EDT
The Obama administration is preparing to unveil an air pollution rule shortly after the midterm elections that could be among the most costly and controversial in history.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is seeking approval from the White House for a proposal to update the nation’s outdated ozone standards. The agency punted on the air pollution rules three years ago and missed another deadline last year.
Environmental and public health advocates say stronger ozone standards can’t come soon enough. But business groups complain that tougher rules would be “unrealistic”.
"You have to balance what you’re trying to achieve environmentally with what you’re trying to achieve in the economy,” said Ross Eisenberg, vice president of energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).
The new proposed rules will be the climax of the EPA’s review of the current standard for ground-level ozone, which it is obligated to study every five years.
Ozone, a byproduct of pollutants that come from burning fossil fuels, is known to cause respiratory illnesses and to harm some plants. Officials have not said whether they will seek to lower the threshold for the pollutant, but observers think it will be reduced to some degree.
The Clean Air Act compels the EPA to set the standard based solely on public health and welfare considerations, and it cannot consider the costs to implement the rules.
But the ozone standard is mired in politics.
Environmental groups are hoping to avoid a repeat of the very public clash they had with the Obama administration ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
Critics say the White House twisted then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s arm into postponing any change to the controversial rules.
The ozone rules have always been unpopular with business groups, and critics accuse the White House of pushing it to the backburner to deprive Republicans of a campaign attack.
At the time, Jackson famously warned that the ozone standard — which is still in place today — was so weak it was “legally indefensible.”
“But they pulled the rug out from under her,” asserted Ronald White, regulatory policy director at the left-leaning Center for Effective Government.
This time around, President Obama is not on the ballot and it’s “not a coincidence” the draft ozone standard is scheduled to drop in December, right after the congressional midterms, White said.
“It’s not as though Obama needs to worry about a third term,” he said.
John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, see this as an opportunity for President Obama to “remedy the worst environmental and public health decision of his administration."
“This time, things are different politically,” Walke said. "The president is not running for reelection again, and this could be a legacy issue for him before he leaves office.”
But business groups say issuing the draft rule after the midterms will take away the Obama administration’s “political accountability.”
According to a contentious study from the National Association of Manufacturers released this summer, strengthening the ozone standard could cost industry $270 billion per year in compliance costs — making it the most expensive regulation in history.
“We’re running out of ways to comply with the regulations,” Eisenberg said.
Republicans have already begun the fight against the yet-to-be-issued regulation, saying that it would be too expensive and that states should be allowed to catch up to the 2008 standard first.
“Considering EPA and states have not fully implemented the current standard, it would be prudent for the administration to maintain the current level,” Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s energy subcommittee, said in a statement.
Sen. David VitterDavid VitterOvernight Energy: Trump outlines 'America First' energy plan in North Dakota Paul blocks chemical safety bill in Senate House Republican pushes bill to 'curb regulatory overreach' MORE (R-La.), the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, held a series of briefings in Louisiana to blast the potential rule.
“If the rule happens...that basically puts the brakes on big industrial projects, highway projects, et cetera, unless a lot of activity happens to reduce ozone elsewhere,” Vitter told a Louisians television station before one briefing.
Republicans in both chambers proposed identical bills in September that would require the EPA to weigh the costs of lowering the ozone standard against the benefits, along with other measures aimed at stopping the rule.
“It’s a difficult situation, because the Clean Air Act says that the limits are supposed to be set purely based on health and to provide an adequate margin of safety,” said Dan Cohan, an environmental engineering professor at Rice University in Texas.
Wherever the limit falls, the EPA is likely to have a great deal of science to back it up.
“It’s probably important, given the history, that they can point to new evidence, a change of pace relative to September 2011,” said Michael Greenstone, director of the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy institute.
He was referring to Obama’s decision to block the EPA from moving forward with its last attempt at a revision.