White House Messes with Air Pollution Science AGAIN

July 18, 2012 | 11:14 am
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

The Washington Post is reporting that the White House—again—is interfering with the EPA’s ability to set scientific air pollution standards. Last time, it was the president who prevented the EPA from strengthening the air quality standard for ozone, despite the unanimous advice of the agency’s independent scientific advisory committee. This time, the interference is coming from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

According to the Post, emails show that the OMB told the EPA to water down a proposal for a scientific standard for particulate matter (the principal component of soot) that the agency had prepared for public comment. The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set particulate matter and other air pollution standards based solely on the best available scientific information. Nothing else. Nada.

Other factors can legitimately be considered in the implementation of the standard. But the authors of the Clean Air Act wisely understood that what level of pollution is safe for human exposure is a scientific determination, not a political one.

an old coal-fired power plant in Chicago

The Fisk Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant, spews pollution over my hometown of Chicago. A 2010 National Research Council study found that the Fisk and Crawford power plants in Chicago impose a $127 million annual burden in health costs. Photo: Flickr user swanksalot

The OMB has a history of interfering in science, not only softening scientific conclusions but also killing new rules by holding them hostage. This is the same OMB that has stalled a proposal to protect workers from toxic silica dust for 16 months and counting. A recent Public Citizen report found that the OMB missed its 120-day review deadlines on more than half of the rules it received.

That same report found that the government missed 78 percent of congressionally mandated deadlines for establishing new rules or refining old ones. Furthermore, the report documents that as regulations have become a favorite punching bag for Congress, the OMB has slowed down its work considerably.

These delayed rules matter. They are aimed at modernizing food safety inspections, improving the safety of automobiles, and increasing the energy efficiency of federal buildings.

Incredibly, the Obama administration has issued fewer regulations than either the George W. Bush or Clinton administrations. But that hasn’t stopped the House of Representatives from vociferously touting some kind of imaginary regulatory overreach.

Redefining Regicide

The House of Representatives is preparing to redefine the word regicide by voting next week on a suite of misguided bills that could effectively bring the regulatory process to a standstill, making it virtually impossible for the government to respond to new and emerging threats to public health and the environment, or to refine existing public protections to be in line with new research. For example, the so-called Regulatory Freeze for Jobs Act would stop all “significant regulatory action” for two years or until the national unemployment rate falls below six percent—this, despite the fact that small business owners do not see sensible safeguards as a major impediment to job growth.

This interference with needed science-based regulations is only likely to get worse as we get closer to the election—unless we push back. If you believe that the Obama Administration should stand up to special interests and set science based rules on air pollution and other issues, please let the president, and the Office of Management and Budget, know.