President Obama made a political miscalculation last week when he decided to block tough new standards that would have reduced smog pollution from automobile tailpipes, refineries and power plants. He abandoned a popular reform that could have saved as many as 12,000 lives by 2020. He ignored polls that show overwhelming support for environmental reforms, and he did it to appease energy interests that probably won’t give him the time of day in 2012 anyway.
It was also craven to announce this on the Friday before the Labor Day weekend, when no one was paying attention. And that's why I'm writing about it now.
First, a tiny primer: There are two kinds of ozone, broadly "good" and "bad." In the atmosphere, ozone protects us from the harmful effects of the sun's rays, and holes in the Earth's ozone layer caused largely by the wholesale use of now-banned chlorofluorocarbons (from hair sprays and such) are a major problem. On the ground, ozone (more commonly known as "smog") can cause shortness of breath and aggravate asthma, and in extreme cases lead to premature death. Young people and seniors are most at risk.
According to an American Lung Association poll last June, the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to strengthen the rules on ozone pollution had the support of 75 percent of likely 2012 voters. Some 72 percent opposed Congressional efforts to stop the EPA, and 65 percent disagreed with the industry position that the EPA action would hurt job creation — in fact, a 54 percent majority said the new standards would create jobs.
Business groups always cry wolf over environmental regulation and are usually proven wrong. Some are saying now that a tighter ozone law would have cost “millions” of jobs, and that was obviously enough for an unemployment-focused Obama White House to get very nervous — regardless of the facts. Scaremongering works. As the New York Times reported, the utility industry opposed amendments to the Clean Air Act to control acid rain, claiming they would cost “tens of thousands of jobs” and cost $7.5 billion. But the Resources for the Future organization says the actual cost was only $1 billion, and according to the EPA the new law was actually a net job creator due to industry spending and new technology purchases.
Similarly, the industry is up in arms about stricter standards for cement plant emissions, and claims the direct loss of 13,000 jobs. But the EPA says that if any jobs are lost. it will only be 600, but as many as 1,300 positions will be added in industries that make high-tech cement production equipment.
We’ll now see the president dragged back into court by the American Lung Association, which had suspended ozone litigation brought during the Bush years. According to Charles Connor, president and CEO of the ALA, the group would like to see a 60 parts-per-billion ozone standard, replacing the 75 parts-per-billion rule set in 2008. The EPA had determined, after a two-year review, that 75 ppb failed to protect public health, and was “legally indefensible” to boot. It was moving toward a tougher standard until President Obama put a stop to the review process.
Obama’s unilateral action moves an ozone review to 2013, safely after the election. According to Environment America, “Rather than acting decisively to protect our kids from this dangerous air pollution, the White House today chose to kick the can down the road. Our kids, senior citizens and those suffering from respiratory problems will suffer as a consequence and certainly deserve better.” Grist writes, "Politically, this decision is going to further deflate environmentalists who are already frustrated with the administration's huge coal mining expansion, offshore oil drilling blitz and consideration of the Keystone X: tar-sands pipeline" (which drew sit-ins from 350.org, and many arrests).
Obama is not likely to attract Tea Party voters by throwing them this bone, and he’s going to further alienate and dishearten environmentalists who worked for him in 2008. “How are our members in Ohio and Florida, who pounded the pavement in 2008, going to make the case for why this election matters?” asks Justin Ruben of Moveon.org, which counts 5 million members. Of course, conservatives loved it: "This is the first wise environmental decision this administration has taken," said Steve Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute.
The Center for American Progress, very influential and generally supportive of Obama, said that the ozone decision “creates a clear blemish on an otherwise positive record of this administration in supporting initiatives that reduce pollution including the first fuel saving standards for trucks, higher fuel efficiency for cars built from 2017 to 2025 and proposed reductions in toxic pollution from coal-fired power plants.”
The late-period Clinton administration was also characterized by retreats like this, and a reluctance to lead with environmental issues probably caused Al Gore to lose in 2000. Republicans now say they have new hope for capturing the White House in 2012, and decisions like this — made from a position of weakness — are a big reason why.
Here's how the always opinionated Keith Olbermann sees it: