WASHINGTON, D.C. - The White House is engaged in an intense debate over how much it should tighten national smog standards, an issue that has sparked a battle between business and public health groups.

The Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to issue the final rules,which were delayed three times last year and again late last month. As the Office of Management and Budget reviews the agency’s proposal, which was submitted July 11, business groups have joined many state and local officials in launching a concerted push to delay any new standards until 2013.

Ground-level ozone is formed when emissions from power plants and other industrial facilities, vehicles, and landfills react in the sunlight. Smog can cause or aggravate health problems such as asthma and heart disease, and it has been linked to premature death.

The federal government normally reviews the standards for ground-level ozone, which includes a "primary'' one for public health and a "secondary'' one aimed at the environment, every five years.

But Lisa Jackson, EPA administrator, chose to revisit the standards, the most central of which was set under the George W. Bush administration at 75 parts per billion in March 2008, because that level was significantly higher than the 60 to 70 parts per billion recommended by the EPA's scientific advisory committee at the time.

In January 2010, Jackson announced that she would set the primary standard somewhere between 60 and 70 parts per billion and indicated that she would finalize it that summer.

But the proposed regulations have become contentious, largely because they require counties to keep local pollution in check or risk losing federal funds. Although the most polluted areas would have as much as 20 years to meet the new standards, business leaders suggest it could delay the permitting of not only new industrial facilities but also the expansion of existing ones.

Leaders of some of the nation's most influential business groups — including the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the American Chemistry Council — held a meeting about the rules with William Daley, White House chief of staff, and Office of Management and Budget officials.

Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a recent interview that the fact that the rule has not been finalized, as outlined in an agency filing in federal court, "is a positive sign that the adults are in the room, and there's a serious conversation about a job-destruction regulation.''

He added that because senior Obama administration officials are scrutinizing the proposal, "my hope is now that they're engaged, they're going to ask the fundamental question: Why are we doing this to ourselves if we don't have to?''

In recent weeks state and local officials have complained directly to the White House. John Perdue, West Virginia's state treasurer, sent a letter to Daley and spoke to a member of his staff in protest.

"We're an energy-producing state. It's about our economy; it's about jobs,'' Perdue said in an interview, adding that it made sense to appeal to the White House. "You go to the guy that's in charge, which is the president of the United States, who could have a major influence on whether these rules become final or not.''

Joseph Stanko, who heads the federal government relations team at Hunton & Williams and represents several companies that would be affected by the standards, said: "The administration is in a real pickle on this one.

"They didn't anticipate the level of opposition to this,'' Stanko said.

Asked about the smog rule, a White House official said: "As no standard has been announced by EPA and the interagency review process led by OMB continues, speculating on any proposed rule is premature.

Copyright 2011  The Boston Globe