White House Delays Any Change to Smog Standard

The Obama Administration announced today that it will not lower air pollution limits this year for smog-causing ozone -- a move welcomed by industry but decried by public health advocates. The decision derails a proposed tightening by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of a controversial standard developed in the final year of the Bush Administration.

The Clean Air Act requires EPA to review air quality standards every 5 years for a half-dozen pollutants, including ozone. Ozone is produced by reactions between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. Among its numerous health effects, ozone boosts the risk of asthma, causes asthma attacks, and increases the number of admissions for respiratory diseases, such as pneumonia. (Ozone also occurs naturally in the stratosphere, where it shields Earth from ultraviolet radiation.)

In March 2008, then-EPA Administrator Steven Johnson made a controversial decision about the health standard for ozone. Although the agency's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) had recommended lowering the standard to somewhere between 60 and 70 parts per billion, Johnson said he wasn't convinced by the evidence and tightened the level to just 75 ppb.

Environmental and public health advocates sued the agency, and in September 2009 the new Administration announced it would review the previous decision. A few months later, EPA released a draft rule that proposed tightening the standard to between 60 and 70 ppb. In July, this draft rule went to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review, a normal process.

Today, however, President Barack Obama said he has asked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to withdraw it. "I have continued to underscore the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover," Obama said.

Business groups are delighted with the decision. "It will have a direct and positive impact on the business community, providing more certainty, and will contribute to economic growth and job creation," declared Andrew Liveris, head of Dow Chemical, who chairs the Business Roundtable's Regulatory Reform Working Group. But Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, sees it differently: "Today the Obama Administration made a decision that will endanger the health of tens of thousands of Americans. Its choice to delay stronger standards for smog lets polluters off the hook and leaves Americans with sicker family members and higher medical costs," she asserted in her blog.

In a letter to EPA's Jackson explaining the president's decision that was released today, OMB's Cass Sunstein argues that the draft rule did not include the best available science. The draft rule was based on a 2006 scientific review by the agency concluded in 2006, Sunstein noted. Agency staff members have already completed a draft review of science that will be used in the next 5-year review, to be wrapped up in 2013.

But Joel Schwartz, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, says that the new review is not a good reason to delay. "The longer you wait to start [tightening the standard], the longer you wait to get the health benefits."

Obama, however, said in his statement that state and local governments should not have to begin implementing a new ozone standard this year and then possibly have to adjust their planning in 2013. Rogene Henderson of the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the former CASAC chair, agrees. "I have some sympathy with people who are trying to meet this standard," she says. "I think the 5-year cycle is appropriate."

But Schwartz says the White House had a better option: Revise the standard this year, then start the 5-year clock. "That would have been my preference, because they would have at least been doing something," he says.

The first draft of EPA's current scientific review was given to CASAC for an initial review in January. The advisory committee noted the strengthened evidence that ozone can kill, for example, and new toxicological evidence that ozone can affect the central nervous system. Schwartz predicts that CASAC will recommend that EPA officials tighten the standard below 60 ppb in 2013.