President Obama today instructed the EPA to withdraw the draft National Ambient Air Quality Standards, citing the “importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty” in these dire economic times. The regulations would have limited ground-level ozone — the main element of smog — to 60-70 parts per billion, down from the 75 parts per billion limit set in March 2008 during the Bush Administration. The standard will be reconsidered in 2013, after the 2012 elections.
In his announcement, the president said† “the commitment of my administration to protecting public health and the environment is unwavering.” EPA Chief Lisa Jackson had previously called the Bush-era standards “not legally indefensible;” The White House move came as a shock to environmental organizations.
President Obama’s announcement is seen as a victory for big business. The National Petrochemical & Refiners Association hailed the President’s† decision as a signal to the† Environmental Protection Agency “to cease and desist in its effort to impose unrealistic, unjustified and unneeded new ozone standards on our nation,” saying “the extreme standards EPA was considering would have caused devastating harm.”
The president of the League of Conservation Voters reacted, “The Obama administration is caving to big polluters at the expense of protecting the air we breathe. This is a huge win for corporate polluters and huge loss for public health.”
This announced pullback† does not reduce uncertainty. One thing that businesses can be certain of is that environmentalists will continue to fight for stricter regulations on pollution, whoever is in the Oval Office. Waiting until after the next election does not mean that businesses can act with certainty.
The idea that environmental regulation hampers business is a long-standing myth that is indefensible on several counts:
- Delaying the implementation of stricter rules merely increases the eventual costs in implementation, cleanup and healthcare. This is the famous “kicking the can down the road” argument, so common during† the† debt ceiling debate. A statement on the White House’s blog by the Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change summarized a basic point at the heart of the matter: “Clean air is critical to protecting public health and the environment and the evidence shows that itís a good investment.”
- Regulation can stimulate, not stifle, innovation. When businesses are required to pollute less, they are forced to find new and better ways to operate. This has been examined in multiple academic papers that have found an increase in patent activity and other signs of innovation as a result of regulations of pollutant emissions, as businesses scramble to be first to market with less toxic solutions.
The longer we delay regulating harmful pollutants, the greater the overall cost to society. Businesses are smart enough to come up with less toxic alternatives if government would set firm, high standards for everyone’s benefit.
Image: Smoggy Atlanta Skyline 2009 from the Institute for Southern Studies