Obama delays ozone rules again; industry cheers, enviros jeer

The Obama administration is shelving plans to tighten federal limits for ozone, a lung-irritating pollutant that has fouled Houston’s air for decades.

Today’s decisions comes amid complaints from industry and business groups who say the new ozone, or smog, limit could be the most expensive environmental rule in U.S. history.

President Obama said in a statement that he asked the Environmental Protection Agency to wait until 2013 for the regularly scheduled review of the ozone limit before finalizing it. The federal agency already had delayed a final decision four times in the past year.

The American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, praised the move.

“The president’s decision is good news for the economy and Americans looking for work,” API President and CEO Jack Gerard said in a statement. “EPA’s proposal would have prevented the very job creation that President Obama has identified as his top priority.”

The American Chemistry Council said the decision “… will ensure that communities across the country that would have essentially been closed for business by the new standard have a fighting chance of attracting new factories, new construction projects and new energy production.”

The EPA estimates that complying with the new limits would cost $19 billion to $90 billion a year but says those costs would be offset by the benefits to public health.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club condemned the administration’s decision, saying exposure to ozone is “like getting a sunburn on your lungs.”

“By putting the interest of coal and oil polluters first, the White House seems to be saying that ‘clean air will have to wait,'” Brune said.

Smog is created when sunlight cooks a mixture of chemicals emitted mostly by vehicles, industrial plants and refineries. Ozone is the main ingredient of smog, and chronic exposure has been linked to asthma attacks, chest pain and premature death.

The Center for American Progress called the decision “deeply disappointing” and said it “grants an item on Big Oil’s wish list at the expense of the health of children, seniors and the infirm.”

“A new standard for smog would save 4,300 lives and prevent 7,000 hospital visits and tens of thousands of cases of asthma and other serious respiratory illnesses each year,” the group said.

The proposed smog level would be 60 to 70 parts ozone per billion parts air, down from 75 parts per billion, as established by the Bush administration in 2008. The EPA says the more stringent standard reflects scientific studies showing that ozone poses greater health risks than previously thought.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has said she thinks the 2008 smog limit is not legally defensible, given the scientific evidence of the widespread pollutant’s effect on public health. The agency said it intends to finalize the new limit “shortly.”

The 2008 decision went against the recommendation of an EPA-appointed panel of science advisers. The panel said the ozone limit should be no higher than 70 parts per billion and perhaps as low as 60.

Jeff Holmstead, the former head of EPA’s Air Pollution Office and now head of the Environmental Strategies Group at Bracewell & Giuliani said the president’s decision wasn’t a surprise — just the fact that he issued a release on the decision himself taking credit for it. 

“I expected that EPA would quietly withdraw the ozone rule without any fanfare,” Holmstead said in a statement. “The political folks at the White House must believe that the President needs to show that he is concerned about too much regulation from EPA.”

Kevin Book, an analyst with ClearView Energy Partners noted that in his announcement on the delay the President cited other programs he intends to keep — such as increased fuel economy standards and new maximum achievable control technology standard for the electric utility industry — but he does not mention the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule that Texas officials say could endanger the state’s power grid reliability.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s announcement on the ozone rules shortly after his does mention the Cross-State rule, Book notes.

“But she is not the President. We would encourage clients to watch this space and reiterate that we believe that CSAPR is less than 50% likely to go into effect in its current form on 1/1/2012,” Book writes.