Score two for the environment

After eight long years during which regulators pillaged the environment rather than protecting it, there’s a clean breeze wafting out of Washington. This week, the Obama administration took key steps toward reversing two of President George W. Bush’s more egregious assaults on science, conservation and public health.

Remember Tim DeChristopher? He was the courageous University of Utah student who, in December 2008, thwarted the Bush administration’s 11th-hour attempt to auction off pristine parcels of Utah’s red-rock desert for oil and gas development by submitting bogus bids. DeChristopher was partially vindicated when a federal judge later blocked the land leases because the Bureau of Land Management hadn’t bothered to evaluate the impact of drilling on air quality and prehistoric artworks. That prompted a review of BLM procedures, which culminated Wednesday when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a series of reforms to ensure that such fiascoes aren’t repeated.

Under the changes, there will be more government and public review of proposed leases and a better planning process. Congressional Republicans and the oil industry are crying foul, saying Salazar’s initiatives will create delays and lead to higher energy prices. But it’s hard to believe things could get worse for the industry than they are now; the Bush administration’s laissez-faire attitude led to multiple court challenges of leasing decisions. In essence, the failure of federal regulators to do their job forced the courts to do it for them, costing the industry millions in legal fees and worsening delays.

In even better news for everyone who breathes, the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday proposed a stricter federal standard for smog. In 2008, the EPA’s science panel had unanimously recommended an air standard of less than 70 parts per billion of ozone, a pollutant that has been linked to respiratory conditions and premature death. Scientists also proposed a secondary standard during growing seasons to protect crops, whose growth is retarded by ozone -- the main ingredient in smog. Yet after direct intervention from Bush, the secondary standard was rejected and the primary standard was set at 75 parts per billion, too high to protect human health. After reviewing the evidence, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson is now proposing to set the standards that the agency had originally endorsed. Meeting the tougher rules will be expensive, but not as costly as treating the medical conditions linked to smog.


The score: Public recreational, cultural, health and conservation interests 2; polluters 0. The game has changed.