Obama Adminsitration Backtracking On Smog Rules Angers Environmentalists

Environmentalists are upset by President Obama's decision to abandon stringent new smog regulations, but he made the right decision.

Yesterday, the Obama Administration announced that the President had rejected a proposed new rule from the Environmental Protection Agency that was aimed at reducing smog in the atmosphere:

The president rejected a proposed rule from the Environmental Protection Agency that would have significantly reduced emissions of smog-causing chemicals, saying that it would impose too severe a burden on industry and local governments at a time of economic distress.

Business groups and Republicans in Congress had complained that meeting the new standard, which governs emissions of so-called ground-level ozone, would cost billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs.

The White House announcement came barely an hour after another weak jobs report from the Labor Department and in the midst of an intensifying political debate over the impact of federal regulations on job creation that is already a major focus of the presidential campaign.

The president is planning a major address next week on new measures to stimulate employment. Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail have harshly criticized a number of the administration’s environmental and health regulations, which they say are depressing hiring and forcing the export of jobs.

The E.P.A., following the recommendation of its scientific advisers, had proposed lowering the so-called ozone standard of 75 parts per billion, set at the end of the Bush administration, to a stricter standard of 60 to 70 parts per billion. The change would have thrown hundreds of American counties out of compliance with the Clean Air Act and required a major enforcement effort by state and local officials, as well as new emissions controls at industries across the country.

The administration will try to follow the more lenient Bush administration standard set in 2008 until a scheduled reconsideration of acceptable pollution limits in 2013. Environmental advocates vowed on Friday to challenge that standard in court, saying it is too weak to protect public health adequately.

Not surprisingly, environmental groups are not happy about the decision, and they’re clearly frustrated by the fact that the President seems to think that they have nowhere else to go politically:

For green groups, President Barack Obama’s retreat on ozone standards is another reason to question how aggressively they want to support his reelection in 2012.

Even more bruising: The realization that they may not have much choice.

“We have no place else left to go but home,” said one official at a major environmental group, speaking on background Friday. “So the enviros come out looking weak once again because of today and we’re all screaming bloody murder.

“But you know what,” the official said. “At the end of the day, I don’t think the White House is unhappy to hear us complain.”

That could be a dangerous assumption for the administration to make, warned activist Ralph Nader, the former Green Party candidate who siphoned off enough votes in 2000 to deny the White House to Al Gore.

“I know [Obama] thinks all these people voted for him and they have nowhere to go in 2012 because the Republicans are worse,” said Nader, speaking during yet another day of White House protests against a proposed tar-sands-oil pipeline from Canada. “But they can stay home.

They can closet their enthusiasm. They can end their contributions to him. And that’s not what he needs to be reelected.”

A similar warning came from MoveOn Executive Director Justin Ruben, calling the ozone decision just the latest in a series of disappointments.

“Many MoveOn members are wondering today how they can ever work for President Obama’s reelection, or make the case for him to their neighbors, when he does something like this, after extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich, and giving in to tea party demands on the debt deal,” Ruben said in a statement. “This is a decision we’d expect from George W. Bush.”

The reaction on the left side of the blogosphere evidences the same level of frustration. Daily Kos calls the Administration’s explanation for its decision “blatantly preposterous.”  Lawyers, Guns & Money laments the compromises made by yet another President that the environmental lobby had pinned its hopes on:

The president’s greatest power on environmental issues is through the executive branch and working with regulatory agencies. We saw George W. Bush do this very effectively-he wanted to eviscerate environmental regulations and he did. But Obama has generally refused to go down this road. While I think most of us were encourage by the appointment of Stephen Chu as Secretary of Energy, his appointment of Ken Salazar as opposed to someone like Raul Grijalva as Secretary of the Interior was very disappointing. Salazar has always been friendly to the energy industry and we’ve seen his Department of the Interior follow that path. Obama has not been strong on rallying for the National Park Service (which provides jobs, good environmental management considering the number of visitors and a big place in Americans’ hearts). He hasn’t pushed much for wilderness or new protections for federal lands. He signed the wilderness bill in 2009, but that was drafted before he took office.

Like most other issues, Obama caved on clean energy pretty fast, opening up drilling off the Atlantic Coast, apparently thinking this would get petroleum companies behind his energy policy, which showed his typical naivete when it comes to how Washington works. He stopped deepwater drilling after last year’s oil spill but that’s on its way back to pre-spill heights with no real additional regulations to prevent future problems.

And now we see Obama opposing the rules on clean air developed by his own EPA, apparently because he buys into the idea that environmental regulations hurt the economy and cause unemployment, an assertion commonly repeated but without empirical evidence.

It’s all extremely discouraging.

Of course it is, but that’s because the President doesn’t just represent the environmental lobby and isn’t just in office to enforce their idea of utopia. He represents the nation as a whole, and he has to consider the entire national interest when he’s making decisions like this one. Despite what the excerpt above claims, it’s fairly obvious that regulations that increase the cost cost of doing business do have an impact on economic growth, which in turn has an impact on hiring and unemployment. At some point, a trade off needs to be made between environmental purity and other national interests, and it’s not at all clear to me that the Administration made a mistake here, even if you accept the arguments of the environmentalists. Making it more expensive to do business while the economy teeters on the brink of another recession makes no sense whatsoever, and the Administration would have been irresponsible to allow that to happen.

Digging deeper, though, you find that these proposed rules were so stringent that compliance likely would’ve been prohibitively expensive for businesses in many parts of the country:

Critics say the new EPA target levels are overly burdensome and unrealistic.

“The EPA has set the proposed range so low, between 60 and 70 ppb, that they’re getting very close to background levels,” Alicia Meads, energy and resources policy director for the National Association of Manufacturers, said. “So, essentially, if the EPA sets it close to 60 ppb, areas like Yellowstone National Park are going to be in non-attainment.”

In addition to expected job losses, Meads said costs for meeting these new regulations would be split between local governments, small businesses and industry.

In a letter to Obama urging him to stop these regulations, a coalition between NAM and 35 state-level manufacturing associations cites a Manufacturers Alliance study that estimates the EPA’s new ozone regulations would eliminate 7.3 million jobs by 2020.

If local governments refuse to comply with these mandates, Mike McKenna of the American Energy Alliance said they will put their federal highway funds in jeopardy. The EPA could also take over the local government and develop a plan for them.

According to McKenna, athough the EPA doesn’t administer federal highway funding, the Clean Air Act gives the agency the power to withhold the funding if local governments don’t follow its mandates.

Based on this, it seems clear to me that the President made the right decision here. Even if you believe that the already existing rules need to be strengthened, and that isn’t clear by any means, these rules clearly went too far and clearly should not have been implemented in a time of economic stagnation. What environmentalists don’t seem to understand in situations like this is that there’s a cost-benefit analysis that needs to be made when considering regulations like this, and, sometimes, the cost far outweighs the benefit. This was one of those times.




FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Environment, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. JKB says:

    This was pure politics. Old fashioned, “keep our phony baloney jobs” politics. Even in a new era, you don’t impose regulations that has prices going up and people getting their pink slips a couple months before the election.

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    “What environmentalists don’t seem to understand in situations like this is that there’s a cost-benefit analysis that needs to be made when considering regulations like this, and, sometimes, the cost far outweighs the benefit. This was one of those times.”
    BS Doug. The benefit is to big coal and the power companies and the cost is to the people who will be impacted and society will have to pay for that impact. It’s all about privatizing the profits and socializing the costs.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    When you’re looking at requiring a standard that Mother Nature can’t meet, you may want to rethink how you got yourself to this point.

  4. Ben Wolf says:

    When you’re looking at requiring a standard that Mother Nature can’t meet, you may want to rethink how you got yourself to this point.

    Where is that information from?

  5. PD Shaw says:

    @Ben Wolf: The article points out “they’re getting very close to background levels.” What actual background levels are is debatable, but in some places the standard cannot be met because of natural conditions and transport from China.

  6. ponce says:

    Seems odd Obama didn’t extract anything from the boneheaded Republicans in exchange for this.

    Like maybe closing a few energy industry tax loopholes?

  7. mike says:

    yet another example of how things look a bit different when you are in the driver’s seat – Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, drilling, regulation, environment

  8. Console says:

    Lack of environmental regulation doesn’t have zero cost in and of itself. That’s the annoying thing about environmental debates. As though the BP oil spill was free. Or like air pollution doesn’t lead to health problems in the population. We complain about global warming policies hurting the economy like there isn’t a drought in the southwest currently killing the agricultural community. It’s so asinine.

  9. Ron Beasley says:

    What Doug is saying is we have to become China to compete with China – we have to become a third world country to compete with third world countries. That’s what the Libertarian mantra is all about. I don’t buy it. Put a carbon tax on products from China. Put a slave labor tax on third world countries.

  10. john personna says:

    A very bad article, Doug. I say that because you mention “environmental purity” but you don’t mention “deaths.”

    Perhaps even more concerning is research from 2004 that looked at 95 large urban areas in the U.S. and found that an estimated 3,700 deaths could be attributed each year to small daily increases in ozone levels.

    Of course environmental regulation does not come at zero cost, and of course there is a cost-benefit analysis to anything … but it’s just sick to write off as “utopia” any attempt to reduce “deaths.”

    … to go on about the “environmental lobby” while not mentioning the “deaths.” Again. Sick.

  11. Jay Tea says:

    I believe that these are the regulations that Texas said they couldn’t meet without shutting down several power plants… and Texas is currently running about 100% of capacity. These regulations would have meant rolling blackouts across Texas… at the very best.

    In order to get the air pollutants down below the natural levels? That’d go over REAL well.


  12. john personna says:

    @Jay Tea:

    It may be that this couldn’t be done now, or done cheaply, but we should be honest that someone is going to die as a result. That isn’t hyperbole. We have the epidemiological studies here to know which kinds of pollution are tied to which kinds of diseases. We can make our decision on that basis.

    As you may know, we discourage diesel cars in the US, relative to Europe, because we think avoiding the diesel-particulate deaths is more important than fuel efficiency. That’s the reason inner city buses are all natural gas now as well.

    (The best way to convince me that this particular effort was wrong-headed would be to show that it wasn’t the low-hanging fruit, that somewhere else in the economy we can save more lives for the same money.)

  13. Jay Tea says:

    @john personna: Versus those who might die from rolling blackouts?

    Everything has costs. All of life is about tradeoffs. What sacrifices are you willing to make to bring that pollution down to the mandated level? What sacrifices are you willing to impose on everyone else?

    Plus, note we’re talking about air pollution. That stuff tends to ignore things like borders. For example, remember acid rain? We here in New England got to pay the price for air pollution from the Midwest. Here, we’re talking about pollutants being carried from China and India, as well as domestically made.

    The perfect is the enemy of the good. We’re never going to get rid of pollution. What we need to do is figure what what is an acceptable level, and what is demanding the impossible.


  14. Racehorse says:

    There should be a collaboration between industry and the EPA. Study the problems, work out sensible actions, and come to a consensus. Heavy handed dictatorial rules hurt business, drive prices up, and cost jobs.

  15. PD Shaw says:

    Some bakground on background:

    As a point of reference, monitoring in Yellowstone National Park in the
    1990s revealed the maximum 4th high eight-hour average was 64ppb, and was 66 ppb from 2006 to 2008. If the air quality standard is lowered to 0.064, it will likely be impossible for Sublette County to meet the new standard, since the background level would, at times, be either at or above the standard.

    Citizen’s Guide to Air Quality in Sublette County

    The ozone monitoring sites investigated in the US were Denali National Park (Alaska), Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming), Glacier National Park (Montana), and Voyageurs National Park (Minnesota). In the [2001 peer-reviewed] paper, we noted that the relative contribution of the stratosphere to tropospheric ozone is important because policymakers have promulgated surface ozone standards in the United States and Canada at such levels that exceedances might occur as a result of episodic, naturally occurring events that cannot be significantly altered by implementing emission reduction strategies. Although modeling results have been published questioning our conclusions about the importance of stratospheric ozone in affecting surface-level ozone concentrations, we believe the models are unable to adequately quantify the importance of stratospheric-tropospheric exchange (STE) that appears to be affecting some of the enhanced ozone concentrations occurring during the spring months across the US.

    ASL & Assocs

  16. john personna says:

    @Jay Tea:

    I think you said “yeah, but…” and so you acknowledge the deaths. At that point it IS appropriate to determine costs, as I said in my comments.

    @PD Shaw:

    The devil is in the details. The proposed standard is reported as “60-70 ppb” which is a strange way to say it, implying that there are averaging or sumationn rules beneath the raw number. Also, when you quote natural levels, they also use a specific sumation, “the maximum 4th high eight-hour average was 64 ppb”

    The “”the maximum 4th high eight-hour average” is some sort of “average high” rather than the actual average or median.

    FWIW though, I don’t feel super bad about this being delayed. It’s more that I think it should be reported as a public-health trade-off, and not as some loony environmental search for “utopia.”

  17. john personna says:

    (I actually did Clean Air Act calculations at one of my programming jobs. I was working indirectly for power plants. The rules were very strange. It was math a lawyer would dream up. I’m sure the math we used was essentially an industry-regulatory compromise on what kind of “average” daily emissions everyone could live with.

    It was amusing that you could put out more “opacity,” meaning visible smoke, at night when no one could see it. That was part of the legal framework.)

  18. ernieyeball says:

    @PD Shaw: When you are up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember why you started draining the swamp!

  19. Kenneth Almquist says:

    “Making it more expensive to do business while the economy teeters on the brink of another recession makes no sense whatsoever, and the Administration would have been irresponsible to allow that to happen.”

    One reason it would make sense is that it would create jobs. Currently companies are sitting on piles of cash that they aren’t investing because of low demand. Requiring them to invest in ozone abatement now will put some of that cash to productive use. You are correct that imposing the regulations would have, “an impact on hiring and unemployment,” but you don’t say whether the impact will be positive or negative, and the direction of the impact matters.

    Another reason it would make sense is that the economic cost of upgrading pollution controls now is less than it will be after the economy has fully recovered. The dollar price for pollution controls may be about the same in either case, bit if they are built now, the work will for the most part use economic resources which would otherwise be idle. Once the economy has recovered, there is an economic tradeoff to be made: installing pollution controls will use economic resources which would otherwise be put to other uses.

  20. Rob in CT says:

    What’s amazing to me is the difference between that Lawyers, Guns & Money post on Obama’s policies versus the stuff we hear day in day out from our rightwing commentor friends: he’s a super regulator, the EPA is destroying industry, nobody can drill for oil because of the Obamamonster, etc.

    Alternative universes, man. Wooooah [think Keanu Reeves]