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Obama Administration Delays Life-Saving Smog Standards

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Today the Obama administration made a decision that will endanger the health of tens of thousands of Americans. Its choice to delay stronger standards for smog lets polluters off the hook and leaves Americans with sicker family members and higher medical costs.

Smog standards exist because smog is dangerous to human health. It causes respiratory illness, cardiac disease, and premature death. Though we have made progress in reducing this harmful pollution in American skies, we haven't licked the problem yet.

The stronger smog standards would have saved up to 4,300 lives and avoid as many as 2,200 heart attacks every year. They would have made breathing easier for the 24 million Americans living with asthma. And they also would have created up to $37 billion in health benefits annually.

By failing to deliver these health and economic benefits to the American people, President Obama has come down on the side of polluters and those extreme forces who deny the value of government safeguards.

In his statement today, President Obama referred to a need to reduce "regulatory burdens." But having cleaner air to breathe is not a burden for the American people.

Nor is complying with safeguards an undue burden for business. Businesses would have incurred costs to reduce their smog pollution, just as they have to pay to haul away garbage, make sure transit fleets don't endanger drivers, and make sure their food products don't sicken people. These are some of the costs of doing business.

In the case of ozone standards, the costs wouldn't have kicked in for several years, long after the current economic downturn. And keep in mind that in 2010, the top 10 utilities had a combined $28.4 billion in profits and $7.5 billion in cash balances. They can afford to embrace innovative pollution controls and protect their customers' health.

Meanwhile clean air investments yield enormous returns. The smog standards would generate $37 billion in value for a cost of about $20 billion by 2020. Take together, Clean Air Act standards generated approximately $1.3 trillion in public health and environmental benefits in 2010 alone for a cost of $50 billion. That's a value worth more than 9 percent of GDP for a cost of only .4 percent of GDP. The ratio of benefits to costs is more than 26 to 1.

Americans know it's cheaper to stay healthy than it is to pay for asthma attacks, missed work days, emergency room visits, and hospital stays. That's why a June poll for the American Lung Association of likely 2012 voters from all parties found that 75 percent support the EPA's effort to set stronger smog standards and 66 percent believe that EPA scientists -- not Congress -- should establish clean air standards.

Strengthening the standards for smog isn't just popular. It's required by law.

In 2008, the Bush EPA adopted ozone standards outside the range unanimously recommended by the EPA's science advisors. As a result, those standards were challenged by more than a dozen states, the American Lung Association, NRDC, and others for being unlawfully harmful to public health.

When the Bush EPA ignored its own science advisors on another air quality standard, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned those standards. Lisa Jackson, the current EPA administrator, wanted to avoid a similar legal fate on ozone. She concluded that the Bush-era ozone rules are "not defensible" under the Clean Air Act, and she committed to creating a legal standard that protects Americans' health.

Today's decision means the Obama administration now accepts the Bush-era standard. It also means NRDC will resume our lawsuit challenging it.

The Obama administration has been on the right side of the law and the science on other strong clean air protection -- including the one limiting mercury pollution -- which are now under attack in Congress. The president needs now to mount a forceful defense of those standards so we don't endanger Americans further.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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