Obama Withdraws Suggested EPA Changes

President Obama is withdrawing proposed Environmental Protection Agency changes to national smog standards. The president said a science review is underway on the current ozone standard — and rules will be reconsidered in 2013. Needless to say, environmentalists aren't happy.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: I'm Robert Siegel. And we begin this hour with a retreat. President Obama has backed away from his administration's pledge to tighten health limits on the amount of ozone in the air. Ozone is the key component of smog. It causes asthma and other respiratory problems. Today, the White House announced that it would not revisit the Bush administration's health limits for ozone, even though they're based on outdated science. Industry groups say they are delighted with the decision because cleaning up the air to meet a new standard could cost $90 billion. NPR's Richard Harris has the story.

RICHARD HARRIS: The government is supposed to make sure air-quality standards are adequate by reviewing them every five years. But when President Obama came into office, his administration said it wouldn't wait five years to review the ozone air-pollution standard recently set by President Bush.

DANIEL WEISS: EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said that the Bush standard was, quote, "indefensible," unquote, from a scientific point of view.

HARRIS: Daniel Weiss, from the left-leaning Center for American Progress, had high hopes when the EPA proposed a much stricter standard earlier this year. Now, the standards themselves are supposed to be based purely on health science, not on economics. But the EPA also conducted an economic analysis and found that meeting the new standard would cost in the neighborhood of $90 billion. So industry pushed back.

Howard Feldman is director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, which objected to updating the 2008 Bush standard.

HOWARD FELDMAN: It would have put the entire country basically in a category called nonattainment, meaning not meeting the standards at all, which would impact how businesses expand to create new jobs and would have impacted existing businesses requiring additional controls on businesses in the U.S. where foreign competitors don't have that.

HARRIS: Feldman says it's not just industry who would lose if they had to spend more money on pollution control.

FELDMAN: And unemployment is so large right now. Now is not the right time to be putting additional rules that will threaten jobs.

HARRIS: That argument appears to have won the day. The EPA found that the costs of controlling ozone are more than compensated for by the economic benefits of lower doctor bills and greater worker productivity. But even so, the White House announced today that it's dropping the issue for now. Instead, it will wait for the law's five-year clock to tick down to zero before taking up these contentious ozone standards.

Of course, this isn't just a story about a struggle between industrial versus environmental interests. Janice Nolen, from the American Lung Association, says ozone is in our air right now.

JANICE NOLEN, AMERICAN LUNG ASSOCIATION: Ozone can not only trigger things like coughing and wheezing and asthma attacks. It can send people to the hospital and the emergency room because they can't breathe. But it also can kill people.

HARRIS: Recent studies show that even healthy adults can feel health effects from ozone levels that are below the current health standard, Nolen says. That means air that now registers in the healthy zone isn't necessarily so.

ASSOCIATION: But those people and those communities think they got healthy air because nobody is telling them otherwise. And that's why we are unhappy and outraged by this because it is not telling people the truth about what we know about public health.

HARRIS: The Obama administration's decision to defer this health review means this particular issue won't be considered again until after the next election. But the Republican-controlled House has its sights set on five other proposed EPA regulations, and they're planning to raise those issues after they return to the Capitol next week. Richard Harris, NPR News.

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