WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sided with business interests against the Environmental Protection Agency on Friday and ordered a sudden halt to a plan to toughen the Bush administration's limits on smog.
The smog rule was a top priority for the EPA and health and environmental groups because dirty air has been shown to contribute to early death, heart attacks and lung problems, including bronchitis and asthma.
It was one of 10 regulations targeted this week for elimination by House of Representatives Republican leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, but Obama beat him to it.
The EPA tightened the standard for ozone, the main component in smog, during the Bush administration in 2008. However, the agency's scientific advisory board unanimously advised that the new standard wasn't strong enough.
Obama said in a short written statement that he'd decided against making the smog rule stronger because it would put too big a burden on business in a tough economic time. He added that his commitment to protect public health and the environment was "unwavering" and that his administration "will continue to vigorously oppose efforts to weaken EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act or dismantle the progress we have made."
Minutes after the statement came out, the president's supporters and opponents alike attacked it.
Republicans said scrapping the smog rule was the right thing to do, but they hammered Obama anyway. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the decision "highlights the devastating impact on jobs that has been created by this administration's regulatory overreach."
"It appears that the president's vision has finally cleared and he is realizing that Washington regulations have real effects on Main Street," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. He said the smog decision was "a step in the right direction," but that it was "just the tip of the iceberg."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said more regulatory rollbacks were needed.
"The U.S. Chamber is glad the White House heeded our warning and withdrew these potentially disastrous — and completely voluntary — actions from the EPA," said the business group's president and CEO, Thomas Donohue. "This an enormous victory for America's job creators, the right decision by the president and one that will help reduce the uncertainty facing businesses."
Business groups had argued that the EPA's smog rule would put most of the country out of compliance with pollution standards, and that pollution controls would have been so costly that many companies would have cut jobs.
Supporters of the rule had argued that its health benefits would outweigh its costs and threats of economic harm were exaggerated.
"The White House is siding with corporate polluters over the American people," Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke said in a statement. "The Clean Air Act clearly requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set protective standards against smog — based on science and the law. The White House now has polluted that process with politics."
The retreat on the ozone standard is the latest decision Obama has made that appears to be a capitulation to Republicans, sparking growing disenchantment among his base.
In December, he agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. In April, he reached a deal to avert a government shutdown by agreeing to GOP demands for budget cuts. In early August, he signed a deal to lift the nation's debt ceiling and avoid a credit default, though the agreement doesn't guarantee that spending cuts will be balanced by tax increases, as he had insisted.
"Many MoveOn members are wondering today how they can ever work for President Obama's re-election 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," said Justin Ruben, the executive director of the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org, which backed Obama in 2008.
House Republicans plan attacks on other environmental regulations over the fall and winter, including a plan to put limits on mercury, arsenic and other toxics from power plants for the first time. Another rule targeted by House Republicans would put limits on greenhouse gas pollution from large industrial plants.
Obama said in his statement that the last review of the scientific literature was in 2006, and that work was under way for the next legally required review, in 2013. "Ultimately, I did not support asking state and local governments to begin implementing a new standard that will soon be reconsidered," he said.
The American Lung Association rejected that reasoning.
"For two years the administration dragged its feet by delaying its decision, unnecessarily putting lives at risk," its president and CEO, Charles Connor, said in a statement. "Its final decision not to enact a more protective ozone health standard is jeopardizing the health of millions of Americans, which is inexcusable."
Ozone inflames human airways and can make breathing difficult. It's mainly a summer problem, because heat and sunlight speed its formation from emissions from vehicles, power plants and other sources.
The 2008 rule put the ozone level at 75 parts per billion. The EPA in January 2010 proposed setting it at 60 to 70 parts per billion, the range recommended by its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. The final rule was never released. The White House Office of Management and Budget had been reviewing it.
The EPA had projected that the range it proposed would have saved an estimated 1,500 to 12,000 lives per year. The EPA also had said that the stricter ozone rule would have prevented thousands of cases of respiratory infections, asthma attacks and cases of bronchitis. The agency had said that smog was responsible for tens of thousands of emergency room visits per year.
Heather Zichal, the deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change, defended the administration's environmental record in a blog post, noting that it's increased fuel efficiency for cars and trucks and completed a new rule that will reduce air pollution crossing to other states.
The EPA also has proposed rules to reduce pollution from cement plants, oil and gas drilling and industrial boilers.
Republicans plan to try to block them all.
(Lesley Clark contributed to this story.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY