President Obama ordered the Environmental Protection Agency Friday to shelve proposed regulations for new air-quality standards, citing the potential impact on the weak economy.
"I have continued to underscore the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover," Mr. Obama said in a statement. "With that in mind, and after careful consideration, I have requested" that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson "withdraw" the proposed smog standards.
In making the move, Mr. Obama is sticking with air-quality standards set in 2008 by the administration of Republican George W. Bush, which Obama administration officials have said is based on outdated science. A White House official insisted to reporters that killing the more onerous standards was not intended "to endorse the Bush administration's judgment," but was done because another mandatory review of the standards is set to take place in 2013, and implementing tougher rules now could create "uncertainty."
The current Bush ozone standard of 75 parts per billion was set over the objections of EPA scientists. Ms. Jackson has made tightening the regulation a key priority, pushing for the change ahead of the regularly scheduled five-year review in 2013.
But Cass Sunstein, the president's "czar" in charge of regulatory review, told Ms. Jackson in a letter Friday that Mr. Obama was rejecting her proposal for more restrictive standards.
"He has made it clear he does not support finalizing the rule at this time," Mr. Sunstein said.
The new regulations on ozone ambient air quality standards would have cost the U.S. businesses anywhere from $19 billion to $90 billion per year to comply with, a figure mentioned by the president earlier this week in a letter to Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. Congressional Republicans and industry leaders have been sparring with the administration over the increasing cost of government regulations, arguing that the burden is preventing firms from hiring more workers.
The issue found Mr. Obama caught between environmentalists, an important part of his liberal base, and his push to stimulate the faltering economy. The president killed the proposed air-quality standards just hours after the latest unemployment report showed that employers hired no new workers in August, and the unemployment rate remained at 9.1 percent nationwide.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, called the EPA's proposed rule "the most expensive environmental regulation ever imposed" and said it would have cost 7.3 million jobs by 2020. Mr. Cantor added that the president's move to stop the new rule would give momentum to House Republicans in their agenda to cut more government red tape when they return to Washington next week.
"The administration still has six regulations with a cost of over $1 billion pending and 218 with costs of over $100 million pending, all of which are adding to the economic uncertainty," Mr. Cantor said. "House Republicans will continue our efforts to make sure the remaining regulations do not go into effect. I am hopeful the president will work with us to remove these barriers to growth and move forward on other common-sense legislation to allow businesses to begin hiring again and people to get back to work."
The administration had already missed several deadlines for imposing the new smog rules, but the president's action still angered many of his supporters. Mr. Obama did not appear in public to discuss the decision; he is departing Friday afternoon for a weekend at Camp David with his family.
League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski reacted bitterly to the president's move.
"The Obama administration is caving to big polluters at the expense of protecting the air we breathe," Mr. Karpinski said in a statement. "This is a huge win for corporate polluters and huge loss for public health."
A White House official who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity denied that the president was surrendering to big business.
"This is not a product of industry pressure," the official said. "This has nothing to do with politics."
In an attempt to mollify his base, the president insisted he is still committed to protecting the public health.
"I want to be clear: My commitment and the commitment of my administration to protecting public health and the environment is unwavering," Mr. Obama said. "I will continue to stand with the hardworking men and women at the EPA as they strive every day to hold polluters accountable and protect our families from harmful pollution."
Another White House official defended Mr. Obama's record on the environment, pointing to his push for doubling vehicle fuel efficiency by 2025 and cutting emissions from power plants.
Said Ms. Jackson of EPA in a statement, "This administration has put in place some of the most important standards and safeguards for clean air in U.S. history."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the president's action "highlights the devastating impact on jobs that has been created by this administration's regulatory overreach."
"There are hundreds of regulations that even the administration acknowledges will cost America's job creators billions of dollars," Mr. McConnell said in a statement. "This action alone will prevent more job losses than any speech the president has given, and I hope he will listen to the bipartisan calls from across the country to address his administration's negative impact on job creation."
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