The Obama administration, facing withering criticism from industry that environmental rules are behind the stalled economy, appears poised to miss another key deadline for new standards to clean up smog, lobbyists and environmentalists contend.
After agreeing to work with environmentalists who had sued over the standards, the Environmental Protection Agency has delayed issuing rules on low-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog, four times since 2010.
Most recently, it brushed aside a self-imposed July 29 deadline. Many in industry and the environmental community had expected the EPA to issue the rules and implementation guidelines by an Aug. 12 deadline to file a proposal for next steps with a court, as part of a pending lawsuit. But administration officials, industry lobbyists and environmentalists now expect the EPA to miss that deadline too.
The delay would be the latest the administration has made on environmental regulations since the midterm election, as emboldened critics in industry and the Republican Party have honed their narrative that regulations kill jobs.
Major lobbying groups like the National Assn. of Manufacturers, Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and the American Petroleum Institute have demanded weaker standards than those reportedly proposed, arguing that tougher ozone rules would send jobs overseas. Two Republican senators have sent a letter to the EPA, questioning the competence of the independent scientific council that recommended the tougher ozone standards to the agency.
"The ozone ambient standards present a tough political issue for several reasons," said lawyer Scott Segal of the lobbying firm Bracewell & Giuliani about the pitfalls of stricter ozone rules. "Many states and metropolitan areas will face effective bans on economic growth and job creation at the very time they need it the most. Second, opposition to the ozone standards is an area of common ground between many state officials, manufacturers, workers, power providers and commentators interested in limited government," said Segal, whose clients include energy companies.
On Monday, a group of environmentalists and public health associations signaled their lack of confidence that the administration would act soon. The groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund and the American Lung Assn., filed a motion in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to set an immediate deadline for the EPA to issue the ozone rules.
In 2008, the George W. Bush administration set less-stringent standards than those recommended by an independent scientific council advising the EPA. Environmentalists sued, then put the case in abeyance based on the Obama administration's pledge in early 2010 to look at the science and set tougher standards. It is those tougher standards that have been repeatedly delayed.
Environmentalists and lobbyists expect the administration to set the new ozone standards within the range recommended by the scientific panel, which was 60 to 70 parts per billion.
But the dispute now is over implementation, both sides say. If state regulators have greater sway in implementation, the rules may be more lax in some states than they appear on paper.
"I don't know what is motivating these delays," said David Baron, a lawyer with Earthjustice, the environmental group that filed the motion. "But it's certainly not a need for further study of the science, which has been well-established for years, and was just reaffirmed by the EPA's science advisors at the end of March."
Low-level atmospheric ozone occurs when sunlight reacts with air containing hydrocarbons and emissions like nitrogen oxide. Research shows that living in areas with high concentrations of ozone worsens respiratory ailments. The EPA estimates that up to 12,000 lives could be saved annually from implementing the new standards.
But stricter ozone limits would affect power plants, refineries and a range of manufacturing, some of which might move to countries with weaker standards, lobbyists said.
The EPA sent the rules to the White House Office of Management and Budget in mid-July. The office typically takes 60 to 90 days to complete a regulatory review.