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Obama backpedals on tighter smog rules, citing 'uncertainty'

The White House pulls its support for stricter pollution regulations but leaves the door open for an update in 2013.
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Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor on

As if the whole controversy over the $13 billion Keystone Pipeline project or the collapse of favored solar company Solyndra weren't enough for the Obama administration to deal with this week, the White House turned its back today on a proposed regulation that would have tightened the rules regulating smog levels.

The stated reason: to "reduce uncertainty." The cynic in you can read it this way: This is not a battle that the President is willing to take on right now, with Republicans breathing down his neck and an election cycle coming into play for 2012. Indeed, the White House does leave the door open for a new battle over this whole issue in 2013, but today's development signals that it has decided not to have a backbone when it comes to defending the environment over the protestations of big business.

It is another clear signal that the United States will probably be more lax in enforcing environmental regulations than many corporate sustainability managers have thought -- or feared. The way your organization reacts to this move will depend a great on whether it was acting on sustainability programs simply out of fear of government penalties or whether your business has realized that there is true advantage both to the planet and to the bottom line in creating policies that encourage more sustainable use of the earth's natural resources.

Here is what has happened. The White House sent a letter today to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), declining to support its proposal to tighten smog regulations. The proposed change would have regulated a range of 60 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion for the amount of ozone allowed in the air. The current accepted level is 75 parts per billion.

In the letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs writes:

"Under the [Clean Air Act], finalizing a new standard now is not mandatory and could produce needless uncertainty. The Act explicitly sets out a five-year cycle for review of national ambient air quality standards. The current cycle began in 2008, and EPA will be compelled to revisit the most recent standards again in 2013. ... In this light, issuing a final rule in late 2011 would be problematic in view of the fact that a new assessment, and potentially new standards, will be developed in the relatively new future."

The EPA's rationale for the proposed change was related to health, but the proposal drew the ire of both industry groups including the American Petroleum Institute and Republican congressional leaders, who whined that the change could cost businesses billions of dollars.

On the White House Web site, the Obama administration defends its record of acting on behalf of the environment in a post by Heather Zichal, the deputy assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change. Zichal points to benefits from changes already made to the Clean Air Act and to efforts by the Obama administration to double the fuel efficiency standards for cars and light duty trucks. The blog also points to a number of proposals, including the next round of fuel efficiency standards for this class of vehicle as well as the first standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. The White House also cites the Cross-State Pollution Rule, which it believes could produce "net benefits in excess of $100 billion" and prevent up to 34,000 deaths annually.

Zichal writes:

"Taken together, the Administration's clean air achievements will produce enormous economic benefits for public health and the environment -- while promoting the nation's continued economic growth and well-being."

These achievements notwithstanding, I can't help but wonder about the fate of those new rules, given the attitude in Washington that environmental regulations get in the way of the corporate world -- rather than it to think innovatively about alternatives. I wouldn't be surprised to see the fuel-efficiency standards, in particular, come under more scrutiny now that the White House has capitulated again to pressure from the Republican party.

Meanwhile, the issue that everyone should be watching carefully in the coming weeks and months is the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would create a 1,700-mile-long pipeline across the midwest in order to bring oil down from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas.

After an environmental review, the State Department has given the project a green light. The White House said it will make its decision about what to do by the end of the year. Its decision will be a clear harbinger of the administration's real support for progress on energy alternatives to fossil fuels.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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