The Obama administration is playing the delay game when it comes to implementing harsher rules to reduce pollution.

The latest setback for environmentalists came when the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would not be making any decisions on both new smog rules and what is known as boiler regulation. The agency said it needed until at least until July 2011 to analyze health reports on smog and until April 2012 for analysis on the boiler regulation.

Before analyzing the politics behind this move, let’s begin with what each of these rules is about. The so-called “smog rule” calls for a lowering of the limits on airborne ozone pollutants. The proposed limit would be lowered to 60 to 70 parts per billion from the current limit of 75 parts per billion. If this were to happen immediately, the New York Times reports that “several hundred cities [would be] in violation of air pollution standards.” The same reports says that implementing the rule would cost businesses and cities, “as much as $90 billion annually.”

As for the “boiler rule,” it would put limits on pollutants like mercury that come from more than 200,000 industrial boilers, industrial heaters and solid waste incinerators. The rule is intended to cut these types of emissions in half.

Now for the politics.

The punting of these issues reveals two things abut Barack Obama. The first is that he feels he has lost all ground arguing that his policies can grow the economy. The second is that he clearly sees environmentalists as a voting bloc with no other options than to vote for him. Nothing has hammered these two theories home like the recent Russian roulette game the president played with extending the Bush tax cuts, while risking clean energy programs. But it goes beyond the actions of the last few weeks. The president never pushed for an energy policy, like the cap and trade policies that died over the summer, the way he pushed for the healthcare overhaul during the winter. The EPA has been slow to make a coal ash ruling, and now the administration is punting on the smog and boiler rules.

The reason for the president’s failings on all these issues has been consistent: he can’t counter the economic arguments against implementing these policies. Republicans won in November’s elections because the economy remained sluggish. The president had to deal with the Bush tax cuts because the “don’t raise taxes during a recession” argument trumped any other argument he had. Cap and trade became “cap and tax,” and now any attempt to reduce toxic emissions from industrial boilers on smog producers is framed as over-burdensome regulation or worse, “job-killing” regulation.  

As for those whose big issue is the environment, their problem isn’t lack of ammunition to fight these arguments, but rather a lack of leadership. In fact, environmentalists have great ammunition when it comes to moving policy forward. In the fall Earth Justice reported that a study from the EPA revealed the boiler rule alone would reduce premature deaths by 4,800 each year starting in 2013. The same report says heart attacks would decline by 3,000 each year after 2013 as a result of the reduction of mercury and other toxins in the air after the boiler rule was implemented. Beyond that, the same EPA report shows that implementing the boiler rule would save up to $41 billion in avoided death, disease and health care costs. This is good ammunition, but Democrats haven’t provided the soldiers. The right has soldiers like Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who, love him or hate him, will constantly fight against the boiler rule’s savings in lives and dollars with claims that it will cost manufacturing jobs. The left has no such leader.

The only option for environmentalists is President Obama. Clearly, the president is aware of this and until environmentalists find a better option, they will be left losing battles while their weapons remain loaded.

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