President Obama on Wednesday checked off yet another major item on environmentalists’ wish list by targeting smog, further solidifying his legacy on green issues but also angering big business and giving Republicans fresh ammunition heading into the final 24 months of this administration.
After delaying the action for nearly four years, the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday released new tentative rules on ozone, meant to drastically cut the amount of smog produced by power plants and factories.
The proposal — praised by environmental and health organizations but blasted by Republicans and business groups, who say it will cost jobs and create a drag on the economy — would lower the threshold for ozone from 75 parts per billion to 65 to 70 parts per billion.
The EPA also is considering even more onerous standard of 60 parts per billion, officials said, and powerful environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council already are pushing the administration to embrace the lower figure.
Green groups say that with his last electoral contest behind him, the president now can focus on bolstering his record on climate and environmental issues without regard to political repercussions.
“President Obama is not up for re-election. This should be a centerpiece of his environmental legacy,” Terry Maguire, the Sierra Club’s Washington representative on smog pollution, told Reuters just before the new rules were released.
Ozone leads to smog, which has been linked to a series of health problems including premature death, asthma and heart disease. The EPA proposal now enters a public comment period.
For Mr. Obama, the new smog rules — dubbed “the most expensive regulation” in American history by manufacturing leaders — allow him to once again bask in the praise of the environmental community, which views this White House as perhaps the most consequential in U.S. history when it comes to its issues.
Combined with an unprecedented climate change agreement with China, harsh restrictions on domestic carbon emissions, new auto fuel standards and other steps, the ozone regulations will help form the basis of the president’s environmental legacy — though his supporters say he could wash away that progress by ultimately signing off on the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Keystone aside, administration officials, with the full backing of environmental activists, have become especially brazen toward their critics. White House counselor John Podesta went so far as to brag recently that the GOP can’t stop more executive actions and climate regulations.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy continued attacking critics Wednesday, saying their fears about economic damage from Mr. Obama’s actions are unfounded and pure paranoia.
“Critics play a dangerous game when they denounce the science and law EPA has used to defend clean air for more than 40 years. The American people know better,” she said in an op-ed for CNN.com.
“Time after time, when science pointed to health risks, special interests cried the sky was falling. And time after time, EPA obeyed the law, followed the science, protected public health, and fortified a strong American economy,” she said. “The sky never fell. Today’s action follows that proven path.”
But Republicans, despite having few immediate options to slow Mr. Obama’s environmental march outside of lawsuits, still are vowing to fight back.
They’ve zeroed in on the administration’s inconsistency, specifically the fact that the president in 2011 delayed the ozone regulations as part of an effort to convince Americans he was truly concerned about regulatory burden and uncertainty.
Now the proposal has been resurrected, even though the concerns that existed in 2011 still are around today. Republicans also say the White House played politics by waiting until after the election to release the rule and by announcing it the day before Thanksgiving.
“The EPA’s previously proposed ozone standard came with a price tag of up to $90 billion per year, by EPA’s own estimation. In 2011 President Obama pulled back on the 2010 proposal due to high costs and the potential of a detrimental impact to American businesses. Now the EPA is proposing an equally aggressive standard while failing to even be advised about the potential cost of lowering the standard,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican.
“I refuse to let the people of Oklahoma, and America more broadly, fall victim to EPA’s overregulation and extreme environmentalist agenda,” he said.
The EPA argues that it is allowing plenty of time for compliance to the new rules. Ms. McCarthy said the final rule will require states to hit the targets sometime between 2020 and 2037, depending on how far they have to go.
But critics say it’s obvious the regulations will create a serious burden. EPA data, cited by groups such as the Business Roundtable, show that 59 percent of the U.S. population lives in an area that did not meet the 65 parts per billion threshold.
Even if the standard was set at 70 parts per billion, nearly half the country would be out of compliance.
“The administration is now kicking the ladder out from underneath us and is moving forward with regulations that are simply unfeasible to meet with technology available today. This will lead to costly fines on our communities that will ultimately be passed along to our businesses and families,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican.
The National Association of Manufacturers called the rules “the most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public.”
In a July study, the organization calculated that the rule would reduce U.S. gross domestic product by $3.4 trillion from 2017 to 2040 and cut about 2.9 million jobs per year on average through 2040.
Despite those concerns, Mr. Obama’s supporters in the environmental community believe the new regulations, while still not stringent enough, represent a major step forward.
“We applaud the president and EPA for taking this important step to protect public health, and look forward to working with them to ensure the final rule is as protective as possible. While big oil and other polluters try to ignore the science, it’s clear that Americans need to know when this dangerous air pollution reaches unhealthy levels,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the powerful League of Conservation Voters.
“As Thanksgiving approaches, people across the country can add cleaner air to the list of things for which they are grateful,” he said.
⦁ Jennifer Pompi contributed to this report.