- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 10, 2012

President Obama defended the work of the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, saying he would stand with the agency that has taken a beating from Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign circuit for regulations that the GOP contends will cripple the economy and kill jobs.

Mr. Obama, making his first visit to the EPA, took issue with those claims, saying he does not buy the notion there must be a choice between clean air and water and economic recovery. He called the mission of the agency “vital.”

“That is a false debate. We don’t have to choose between dirty air and dirty water or a growing economy. We can make sure that we are doing right by our environment and in fact putting people back to work all across America,” Mr. Obama told about 800 EPA employees at headquarters in Washington, reminding them that before Republican President Richard M. Nixon created the agency in 1970, rivers actually caught fire and were devoid of life.

“When I hear folks grumbling about environmental policy, you almost want to do a ‘Back To the Future’ reminder of folks of what happened when we didn’t have a strong EPA,” Mr. Obama said “You have a president who is grateful for your work and will stand with you every inch of the way.”

Under Mr. Obama, the EPA helped draft a historic rise in fuel economy standards for new cars and trucks, issued the first rules to curb mercury from the nation’s coal-fired power plants and started regulating the heat-trapping gases blamed for global warming.

Yet, at times, Mr. Obama has had to scale back his aspirations for the environment because of a weak economy and political resistance.

The Republican takeover of the House in 2010 killed his campaign pledge to pass comprehensive legislation to address global warming. Since then, the House has passed a string of bills to block EPA rules, all of which have failed in the Democrat-led Senate and drawn a veto threat from the White House.

But the true low point for Mr. Obama on the environment came in September when, faced with criticism from industry and Republicans, he decided against strengthening a standard for the main ingredient in lung-damaging smog, going against the recommendation of agency scientists and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Mr. Obama redeemed himself in environmentalists’ eyes late last year. First, he delayed a decision to build a pipeline to bring tar-sands oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. Then, in December, the EPA finalized the first standards to control toxic mercury pollution from power plants over the objections of Republicans and industry groups.

Now, in the midst of re-election campaign, the big question is whether Mr. Obama will continue his efforts.

Regulations to curb power plant pollution are still being formulated, including a much-anticipated proposal to control greenhouse gases from new power plants. Meanwhile, Republican presidential hopefuls continue to criticize the EPA’s actions under Mr. Obama, saying its regulations have placed a massive burden on business and hindered economic growth. Most of the GOP contenders have said they would throw out expensive and cumbersome rules issued during Mr. Obama’s first term.