Killing the Ozone Rule: President Obama's Bad Air Day

To say that President Obama had a “bad air day” Friday is putting it mildly.

In reversing his Administration’s previously strong support for ozone regulations to protect the health of American children, President Obama (in the words of one observer):  “drank the conservative Kool-Aid, and agreed that tightening ozone emission rules would have cost billions and hurt the economy. But clean air is very popular politically, and the EPA's own studies show that a tighter standard could have created $17 billion in economic benefits.”

President Obama’s decision to throw public health under the proverbial bus isn’t playing very well on America’s editorial and op-ed pages. Hopefully the White House is paying attention to these clips, because with the GOPolluters getting ready to attack more clean air safeguards this fall, the White House will have to make the call on protecting public health vs polluters again and again:

A Bad Call on Ozone, New York Times, (editorial), 09/03/11. This summer, Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, sent a new and stronger standard to the White House — igniting a fierce lobbying campaign by industry groups asserting that the standards would require impossibly costly investments in new pollution controls and throw people out of work. Industry has made these arguments before. They almost always turn out to be exaggerated.

The EPA’s costs and benefits, Washington Post, (editorial), 09/02/11. What is clear is that the “job-destroying regulation” line is a better slogan than it is an expression of the real trade-offs involved in EPA regulation. Aside from ozone pollution, EPA rules under development would restrict the emission of mercury, acid gases, dangerous fine particles and other pollutants from power plants and other sources. These regulations have costs that can be predicted and measured, in jobs and dollars. They also have measurable benefits — lives saved, chronic illnesses prevented, hospital visits avoided and sick days not taken, which in turn have economic effects.

In a cloud over ozone, Washington Post, (op-ed), 09/02/11. Columnist Eugene Robinson: On Friday, Obama appeared to cede the point. He blocked new EPA rules limiting ground-level ozone — otherwise known as smog — as part of a larger effort to reduce “regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty” for U.S. businesses. The move came hours after a disappointing labor report showing that the economy added no new jobs in August. The move to block the ozone rules may make sense politically, since it defuses an issue on which Republicans were prepared to hammer Obama and the Democrats all year. As a matter of public policy, however, it’s wrong.

EPA assault advances, Memphis Commercial Appeal, (editorial), 09/03/11. Their contention that easing EPA rules will create jobs seems to be gaining traction. The Obama administration on Friday said it was overruling the EPA's plan to adopt a stricter standard for ground-level ozone, which causes respiratory illness.  It's hard to imagine an agenda more transparently callous. That it is getting White House support now, too, leaves advocates for the protection of human lives and the environment wondering what's next.

Don't fall for the anti-regulatory smokescreen, Tampa Bay Tribune, (op-ed), 09/06/11. Sidney Shapiro: Regulatory benefits for significant regulations exceed regulatory costs by 7 to 1. The payoff for environmental regulations is even greater. EPA estimates the regulatory benefit of the Clean Air Act exceeds its costs by a ratio of 25 to 1. Similarly, a study of EPA rules issued during the Obama administration found that their regulatory benefits exceeded costs by a ratio as high as 22 to 1. Even these estimates don't capture the full advantages of regulations; some benefits, such as reducing toxic mercury pollution, are difficult to monetize and aren't even counted. The estimates of benefits from agencies have historically proven lower than reality. Sidney Shapiro is a professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law and a member scholar at the Center for Progressive Reform.

Editorial writers and op-ed columnists are not alone in their criticism of the Obama White House on the ozone rule.   The backlash from several quarters has been strong.   Consider this item from today’s Politico/Morning Energy, a message from my own organization’s CEO, Frances Beinecke:

“PRESIDENT OBAMA JUST THREW YOU OVERBOARD.” That’s the subject line from an email NRDC President Frances Beinecke is sending to supporters this morning over the Obama administration’s decision to drop plans for rewriting the Bush-era ozone standards. “Clearly, his political advisers decided he had better curry favor with the fossil fuel barons by throwing us overboard. We get it,” Beinecke writes, urging members to call the White House comment line and express their outrage. “The White House has obviously calculated … that there is little or no political price to pay for stabbing the environment in the back. And they have absolutely no reason to stop selling out our families’ health and natural heritage to big polluters until they feel our outrage and anger.”

(John Walke, also here at NRDC, had equally strong things to say about the ill-considered White House move.)

And then there’s the fact that is now very unhappy with the White House:

“… Justin Ruben, executive director of, a five-million-member online progressive political organization that played a significant role in President Obama’s election in 2008, said he was sure that his members would be deflated.  “How are our members in Ohio and Florida who pounded the pavement in 2008 going to make the case for why this election matters?” Mr. Ruben said. “Stuff like this is devastating to the hope and passion that fuels the volunteers that made the president’s 2008 campaign so unique and successful.”

I could go on, but I think the message is clear enough:  A win for polluters is no win for the Obama Administration.