Obama Asks EPA to Delay Ozone Standards

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Concerns over economy clash with more stringent air pollution standards.

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Citing undue regulatory burden and uncertainty, President Obama asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Friday to delay updating ozone standards until 2013. In response, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, while touting the “important” and “significant” steps her agency has taken to address environmental concerns, simply stated that the EPA “will revisit the ozone standard, in compliance with the Clean Air Act.”

Obama’s letter to the EPA stated that changing the air standards this year would cause excessive burden on businesses and argued that the standard would need to be reviewed again anyway in 2013, based on deadlines in the Clean Air Act.

In a letter to Administrator Jackson, Cass Sunstein, the Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, reminded the EPA that the President has directed his administration to reduce regulatory burdens in accordance with Executive Order 13563.

Professor Lisa Heinzerling of Georgetown Law, a former senior EPA official in the Obama Administration, has argued that President Obama’s emphasis on reducing regulatory burdens was “unlawful.”  In 2001, the Supreme Court held that the EPA may not consider economic costs when setting air quality standards.

President Obama’s decision has been widely criticized by environmentalists.  They see the decision as part of a trend in weakening regulatory policy in response to pressure from Republicans and business leaders.  Moveon.org, one of the organizations responsible for Obama’s 2008 grassroots campaign, has reportedly questioned whether environmentalists will continue to support President Obama in the 2012 election.

The American Lung Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council have indicated that  they will renew a lawsuit against the EPA over its standards, a suit originally filed after the Bush Administration set the current ozone standard at 75 parts per billion in 2008. The organizations had suspended their lawsuit after President Obama took office and his EPA announced it would consider tightening the standards.

The Clean Air Act, originally enacted in 1970, requires the EPA to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards that limit the concentration of pollutants based on their public health risk. These standards are to be reviewed and revised every five years based on the latest scientific knowledge.

After the EPA sets an air quality standard, states are then responsible for implementing plans to achieve the standard.  If states do not have air cleaner than the standard, the Clean Air Act requires strict controls on industry in the state. Based on estimates produced by the EPA, the new ozone standard proposed by the EPA would have cost between $19 – 90 billion each year and would have yielded health benefits of between $13 – $100 billion.

Ground level ozone (O3), also called smog, is considered a pollutant because it is known to cause respiratory problems.