Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Air We Breathe

I know, I know- when President Obama suspended new anti-smog regulations it angered the Democratic Party base and left the GOP wanting more. Or as Digby puts it

Unfortunately, the Republicans will throw what they hate to the floor, gobble up everything they like and then beat the hell out of the Democrats until they get more. Meanwhile, what the democrats like is lying on the floor, so they eat what they hate (and) end up joining the Republican tantrum just to avoid getting pummeled.

Brad Plumer, substituting for Ezra Klein, described the process leading up to the President's strange and not-so wondrous decision last week (if you already know the backdrop, skip to my political take below. You'll be surprised.*):

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to conduct a review of national standards on industrial smog every five years. Ground-level ozone is formed when emissions from power plants, vehicles and factories reacts with sunlight. The resulting pollution can, as the EPA explains, “trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma.”

The last time new ozone standards were set was back in 1997 — at 84 parts per billion. In 2006, the EPA reviewed the science on ozone and health, which had advanced considerably over the years: It wasn’t until the 2000s, for instance, that researchers realized ground-level ozone might actually be killing people, not just causing respiratory problems. Realizing that the old standards were woefully out of date, EPA scientists recommended a new level of 60 to 70 parts per billion. The Bush administration, however, decided to go with a less-stringent level of 75 parts per billion in its final rules, issued in 2008.

Groups such as the American Lung Association quickly filed a lawsuit to stop the Bush rules, which they claimed were too weak and would lead to thousands of unnecessary deaths and cases of respiratory disease. After Obama got elected, however, the new EPA said it basically agreed with the critics and would issue stronger rules by August 2010. At that point, the ALA agreed to hold off on its lawsuit. “We said, that sounds reasonable to us,” says Paul Billings, the ALA’s vice-president for policy and advocacy. “We basically trusted their intentions.”

But August 2010 rolled around. Still no rules. The EPA asked for a further extension. Then October. Then December. Still nothing. Then the EPA said it wanted to go back and look at the science again, just to double-check. Sure enough, EPA’s scientific review board said that a standard of 60 to 70 parts per billion was the most cost-effective way to protect public health. And EPA administrator Lisa Jackson announced that the final rules would be in line with the science.

Industry groups, obviously, weren’t pleased with this. They noted that complying with a stricter standard could cost them anywhere from $19 billion to $90 billion per year by 2020. (The EPA did, however, note that a tougher standard would yield benefits of $13 billion to $100 billion, and that the benefits would outweigh the costs.) Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor dubbed the ozone proposal “possibly the most harmful of all the currently anticipated Obama administration regulations.”

So now, today, the White House announced that it’s not going to have any new rules.

Obviously, this is a sell-out not only of environmental groups, which generally have been partial toward presidential candidate and President Barack Obama, but also of the broad spectrum of the American public, which has to breathe air. Neela Banerjee in the Los Angeles Times notes "The EPA estimates that up to 12,000 lives could be saved annually from heart attacks, lung disease and asthma attacks by implementing the new standards." The decision was announced on the same day as the disappointing and disturbing jobs report, presumably a nod and a wink to the Chamber of Commerce and other interest groups, assuring them that nothing will stand in the way of "job creators" generating the jobs they've so far refused to create (in this country, anyway). An expensive campaign awaits, and these groups, sitting on cash and whining about regulations instead of hiring Americans, are going to be looking to use unspent funds to buy a new, or sitting, president. (A rundown on reactions from the left and right here, from DailyKos.)

But they don't call Barack Obama "the smartest man in the room" for nothing. (He's also the smartest person in the room, but apparently the presence of women doesn't have to be acknowledged. Or at least not welcomed.)

Not because of the reaction of big business and its representatives on Capitol Hill. Speaker Boehner's spokesman termed it "only the tip of the iceberg" while House Majority Leader called it "a step in the right direction." Similarly, the Chamber of Commerce called it merely "a big first step" and its chief lobbyist, The Washington Post reports, "who said he is in frequent contact with White House Chief of Staff William Daley and other top officials, said the administration 'still has a heavy hand' with hundreds of regulations in the pipeline, from those affecting the environment to labor and capital markets."

Not with rank-and-file Republicans, who still would rush to the polls to vote against Obama, even if they realized this President's ozone standards represented less government intervention, and are more industry-friendly, than imposed by Republican George W. Bush. And not with independents (whose votes are those the White House is obsessed with) who generally have a preference for clean air.

This policy is geared in part to be the first stroke in building momentum toward convincing the left that, in a second term, President Obama will be that community organizer we thought were electing in 2008, the "change we can believe in." The ozone standard is due to be reconsidered- not early next year, nor in 2014 or beyond. It will be reconsidered (and strengthened, we're to believe) in 2013- the first year of Obama's second term, assuming the President is re-elected. Air pollution policy is one issue which the campaign will suggest to the left will be adjusted in its favor if President Obama is returned to office, facilitated by the enthusiasm and effort of liberal activists.

This theory is a little far-fetched, immediately. But some on the left place their hope in a second Obama Administration, freed from having to appeal to the center and thus able to find its inner progressive. That theory is no less far-fetched or, as Paul Krugman observes, "so, a lousy decision all around. Are you surprised?"

*manipulative marketing technique common to television and radio

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