President Obama Fails to Use Science to Protect Americans from Smog

September 2, 2011 | 7:57 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

When you’re a government official in Washington announcing bad news and you don’t want much attention, there’s a rule of thumb: make your announcement on a Friday. Reporters and the public alike will be tuning out for the weekend, and you’ll be able to mute criticism.

And when the news is really bad, announce it on the Friday before a holiday weekend, when people are heading out of town or preparing food for the neighborhood bar-b-que.

So today, the Friday before Labor Day, the Obama administration announced that it is going back on its commitment to create a science-based pollution standard for ground-level ozone—a primary component of smog. The decision has profound public health consequences, and represents a departure from the president’s pledge in his Inaugural Address to “restore science to its rightful place.” My colleague, UCS Senior Scientist Dr. Francesca Grifo, called the decision “shocking.”

Here’s a little background:

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has tried to strengthen the smog standard for many years. But it has consistently faced industry and White House opposition to doing so.

The Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority to set the standard based solely on the best available science. Industry compliance costs can only be considered when the standard is implemented. The EPA’s authority was reinforced by a 2001 Supreme Court decision authored by conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

In 2000—yes, when Bill Clinton was president—the EPA began the current process of revising the smog standard. After seven years of analysis, a unanimous independent Clean Air Science Advisory Committee echoed the determination by EPA staff scientists that the standard should be set between 60 and 70 parts per billion (ppb).

Disregarding that advice, in 2008 the EPA under President Bush set the standard at 75 ppb. Multiple sources confirmed that the White House had manipulated EPA documents and forced the EPA to make the ozone standard weaker than the scientists had recommended. In September 2009, the EPA under President Obama announced it would reconsider the standard and issue a final decision by August 2010.

In January 2010, the EPA proposed that the new standard be set within the limit recommended by the scientists. That’s when the process started to break down again. As industry pressure ramped up, the EPA delayed a decision three times—and then, finally, in July 2011, the EPA sent a rule to the White House for final approval.

But industry groups made it clear that they were opposed to a strengthened standard, even hinting that they would try to make his re-election more difficult should the EPA follow the law. And today’s announcement postpones a decision until 2013.

The end result? Five years after the scientists made their recommendations, no new ground-level ozone standard is in place. And as the White House dawdles, more people are getting sick.

So there’s no reason to breathe easy this Labor Day Weekend.