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Portsmouth Press Herald: Environmentalists blast Obama on change in 'Clean Air' stance

September 18, 2011 J

By Deborah Mcdermott – September 18, 2011

With little national media attention, President Barack Obama earlier this month quietly announced he was pulling back from stricter pollution standards that the White House had been promising to implement since he took office.

That decision is hailed by oil and coal industry officials as a smart decision to preserve jobs and further proof that the White House is showing a willingness to talk to them. But it has been derided by environmentalists, who call his decision “shocking” and “extremely disappointing.”

Political ramifications ripple into New Hampshire as well, with Americans for Prosperity calling the dismantling of the federal Environment Protection Agency a presidential campaign issue. But the concern for the health of New Hampshire and Maine residents and its forests is of foremost concern to state environmentalists, who see the president’s decision as having serious implications for both states.

At issue are ground-level ozone pollution — or smog — standards, which the EPA is empowered to set under the Clean Air Act. In 2008, the EPA under then-President George W. Bush set the standard at 75 parts per billion.

When Obama took office, he intimated that if comprehensive energy legislation was not forthcoming, he would look to strengthen the standards set under the Clean Air Act. In 2009, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson indicated she was going to lower the standard to between 60 and 70 ppb. She said at the time the 75 ppb standard was “not legally defensible given scientific evidence.”

The implementation of that standard was delayed three times over the past several years. On Sept. 2 at the start of the Labor Day weekend, Obama announced he was going to intervene in the reduction of the ozone standards by supporting the existing 75 ppb standard.

Environmental groups were quick to decry the action.
“This is shocking,” said Francesca Grifto, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “President Obama’s decision will leave us with a rule that flouts the Clean Air Act and ignores science. They’ve allowed politics to trump science at the expense of the American people’s health.”

The Sierra Club, which has mounted a campaign recently to reduce asthma and lung disease in children and adults, also took the president to task.

“This decision was frustrating for the environmental community as a whole,” said Sean Sarah, East Coast communications director for the Sierra Club. “We had an opportunity with the ozone rule to really turn back the tide of some horrible standards of the Bush administration. And the way it was done was unprecedented. The president just told the EPA to stop.”

Environmentalists point to a number of scientific indicators that point to a need to strengthen the standards.

The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, established by Congress to provide guidance to the EPA on the Clean Air Act, unanimously recommended a 60 to 70 ppb standard, which is supported by numerous studies.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Lung Association, American Medical Association, among other health organizations, have come out in support of the lower standard, as well.

And the president’s decision has potentially serious health ramifications for New Hampshire, Maine and all of New England, said Sean Sarah and Jim Rubens of the N.H. chapter of the Union for Concerned Scientists.

“The phrase everyone uses is that New England is the tailpipe of America,” said Sarah, because pollution from Midwest power plants ride on the prevailing winds to the Northeast.

“A good portion of these pollutants blow in from old coal-fired plants,” Rubens said. “It’s causing problems in our forests and our lungs, so this is extremely important to New Hampshire. From our perspective, we’d like to see our health protected here.”
Rubens and others in the environmental community look to upcoming congressional debate on other EPA standards governing mercury and cross-state pollution.

“If science can be overruled by politics in one area, what’s to prevent it from being overruled in other areas as well?” he said.
Rubens said he fears Obama has signaled to the oil and coal industry a willingness to play ball. “Now that Obama has capitulated, it appears to have emboldened the process politically,” he said.

But those who support the president’s decision say Obama is finally seeing the light: that the cost to industry of implementing the stronger standards is significant — about $1 trillion over a 10-year period, according to a report put out by the Manufacturer’s Alliance. This is money, they say, that can and should be going toward jobs during this time of economic uncertainty.

“We’re in one of the most difficult economic climates in 100 years,” said Corey Lewandowski, N.H. chapter director of Americans for Prosperity. “To increase rules and regulations on businesses that are just trying to survive makes no sense.
Happily, the president made the decision that was right for the economy.”

Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, said it’s a canard to say pollution is worse.

“Cars are much cleaner. Trucks are much cleaner,” he said. “Even the EPA’s own data indicates that aggregate emissions from industry have been reduced 63 percent from 1970 to 2009.”

He said if the EPA is successful in strengthening standards on ozone pollution, mercury and cross-state pollution, it will have a deleterious effect on industry.

“Say you have a paper mill in Maine that can’t expand to keep up with the market because it needs to put in more emissions controls,” he said. “You have to decide whether you can stay in business in order to compete with industry overseas.”

Feldman said in the past year, industry has seen the White House “talking the talk. They’re thinking hard about these issues, and we can see the thinking in the ozone rules.”
Rubens does not disagree, saying he, too, can sense a shift in thinking.

“The fossil fuel industry has done an exceptionally good job at convincing members of the public that clean air is bad for the economy,” he said. “But we’re a science-based society and we depend on progress in science to develop new technologies.

“If we’re going to talk about jobs, I would like the discussion to center around how we avoid ceding clean energy jobs to other countries. Unfortunately, the president has not been more forceful and therefore more effective at creating a clean energy future.”

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