A Decision for Clean Air
Published: July 27, 2011
Federal mandates under the 1970 Clean Air Act have produced cleaner cars, fuels and factories, significantly improving the air Americans breathe. Yet the underlying standards setting limits on ground-level ozone, the main component of harmful smog, have remained unchanged since 1997 - even as science has made it abundantly clear that the standard is still not strong enough to protect public health.
The Environmental Protection Agency has drawn up new and tighter rules, but the final decision rests with President Obama. The White House is under relentless pressure from industry and some legislators to keep the current rules. Mr. Obama should support the agency.
The new rules would force large sections of the country to produce new cleanup plans to reduce pollution, requiring new investment in cleaner power plants and factories. "This is a jobs election. These are job killers," John Engler, the former Michigan governor, said last week as he and his colleagues on the Business Roundtable pressed their case with the White House.
Mr. Engler is wrong. Costs almost always turn out to be more manageable than industry forecasts, and new investments can mean more jobs, not fewer. The main issue is health, not jobs. The E.P.A. has a clear obligation under the law (reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 2001) to set standards protecting public health "with an adequate margin of safety," based on the latest science.
The current ozone standards - 80 parts per billion - were set in 1997 by Carol Browner, then President Bill Clinton's E.P.A. administrator, after a similarly ferocious battle with industry. It was the best Ms. Browner could get at the time. Within a decade, new research showed that harmful respiratory effects occur at much lower levels. Experts began calling for a much more protective standard of between 60 parts to 70 parts per billion.
True to its practice of ignoring politically inconvenient science, the administration of George W. Bush set the standard at 75 parts per billion in 2008. This was immediately challenged in court by public health groups. Lisa Jackson, the current E.P.A. administrator, has now asked the White House to let her set the standard between 60 parts and 70 parts per billion, consistent with the science. Setting the number at the lower end of the range would obviously do the most good.
The White House is nervous about critics who claim that that E.P.A. is issuing too many new rules - on greenhouse gases, fuel economy standards and toxic pollutants like mercury. All of these rules are overdue, and protecting the environment and public health is the agency's job. President Obama cannot allow politics to trump science.