New EPA guidelines on soot: a political cloud for Obama?

Forced by a federal court to act, the EPA issued new clean air guidelines lowering permissible levels of soot. The move was attacked by Republicans and industry leaders as harming the economy.

David J. Phillip/AP/File
In this 2011 photo exhaust rises from smokestacks in front of piles of coal at NRG Energy's W.A. Parish Electric Generating Station in Thompsons, Texas. A federal court compelled the Environmental Protection Agency to issue new guidelines lowering permissible levels of soot. The agency wanted to delay the new clean air rules until after the 2012 election.

Fossil fuel industry leaders and Republicans slammed the Environment Protection Agency Friday, saying its “aggressive regulatory agenda” is harming the US economy after the EPA announced new clean air regulations that lower the permissible levels of soot.

The proposed tightened regulations, with their mandatory public comment period that follows, could be a political liability for President Obama, who is seeking reelection in November and whose environmental policies are favorite targets of the GOP.

A US District Court ordered the EPA to issue its updated clean air standards after a lawsuit filed by advocacy groups and a coalition of 11 states charged the agency with violating the Clean Air Act by seeking to delay the regularly scheduled update until after the election year. The agency wanted to push the new rules to August 2013.

The EPA framed the new regulations as a win for public health and for the economy in that millions in medical costs are expected to be saved.

“We will be saving hundreds of thousands of lives,” Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, told reporters Friday.

News of the regulation could create vulnerabilities for Mr. Obama in swing states, where presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney is already telling voters the president’s policies on emissions from coal-fired power plants are too aggressive and have been hurtful to job creation.

Of the states supporting the EPA changes – California, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington – none are in the Rust Belt, where Mr. Romney will be campaigning this weekend and into next week.

Some Republican lawmakers used the news as an opportunity to criticize the president. In a statement released Friday, Sen. James Inhofe (R) Oklahoma said the president and the EPA don’t “understand the economic pain that Americans are feeling today: Even as we continue to make environmental advancements, the Obama-EPA is persistently going to the extreme.”

Petroleum and coal industries have long opposed making the standard more stringent, saying it will lead to increased costs and be harmful for domestic energy production. Voices from those quarters derided the agency’s decision, framing it as politically motivated.

In a statement, Evan Tracey, senior vice president for communications for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity in Washington characterized the new standard as “another example of how the agency is ignoring the harm its aggressive regulatory agenda is causing to the US economy.”

Congressional Republicans and industry advocates are also questioning the science linking tighter soot standards and better public health. Last week, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R) sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson asking her to maintain the current standard and saying the agency is not allowing “for full consideration of alternatives and review by expert scientist at other federal agencies.”

Similarly, Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs for the American Petroleum Institute in Washington, also disputed the health data supporting the revised change. In a statement released Friday, Mr. Feldman said the new rule is based “on faulty scientific analysis.”

 “Important scientific data have been ignored and other purported findings have been misinterpreted. A more objective review of the science would conclude that the current standards should be considered among the regulatory options to continue improving air quality,” he said.

However Dr. Albert Rizzo, chairman of the board of the American Lung Association, says soot is a known killer. "The science is clear, and overwhelming evidence shows that particle pollution at levels currently labeled as officially 'safe' causes heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks," he told the Associated Press Thursday.

Supporters of the regulation dismissed the criticisms Friday, saying that the EPA was failing to follow Clean Air Act requirements to consider revising soot standards every five years. Under both the Obama and Bush administrations, the agency declined to revise the standards, saying more time was needed to review the science.  

Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer said the revised ruling “will have substantial health benefits in California and communities across the nation.”

Changing the metric for clean air “shows very clearly the existing standard was not at a level that protects public health,” says Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for national policy and advocacy with the American Lung Association. “What this new standard will do is let people know what the truth is about the air they breathe.”

A public comment period is required this year and the new rule is due to be finalized by Dec. 14. What it will do is revise the benchmark for the public’s exposure to soot, which is now regulated at 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air; the new rule will lower the standard to between 12 and 13 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

“The rule itself does not clean up anything, it tells us what clean air is,” says Ms. Nolen.

Soot particles, invisible to the naked eye, are comprised of smoke, chemical, and metal compounds that are produced from sources such as power plants, diesel trucks, and burning wood. Measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or one-thirtieth the width of a human hair, they can very easily get deeply embedded into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Scientists say common ailments related to soot are heart and lung disease, asthma complications, and strokes.

According to the ALA, the new standards will prevent more than 35,000 premature deaths and save $280 billion in health-care costs.

Once the new metric is finalized in December, the agency starts a two-year process that will identify which areas of the country have elevated levels of soot, followed by a three-year window to give communities a chance to clean up their air or risk losing federal funds.

The EPA says it projects only six counties will not be able to meet the new standard by 2020 due to older diesel technology established around ports or railyards. Ninety-nine percent of all counties in the US are projected to not have to make any actions to reduce emissions, the agency said Friday.

Nolen says worries that the ruling will dramatically alter the energy landscape are unfounded. “This is not a hammer falling today. People saying that are exaggerating the process, which has been methodical and effective for years in getting air cleaned up,” she says.

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