Standing on the capitol steps on a crisp and partly sunny January 20, 2009, newly-minted president Barack Obama said he would "restore science to its rightful place" -- what had been a part of the mission statement of Science Debate 2008, the nonprofit grassroots initiative to get the candidates for president to debate the nation's top unsolved science challenges.
But today Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said the EPA will not meet a court-imposed September 30 deadline to propose rules for limiting greenhouse gas pollution like excess carbon dioxide from power plants. "Greenhouse gases for power plants is first on the docket... Although we are not going to make the date at the end of the month," Jackson told Reuters, "we are still working and will be shortly announcing a new schedule."
The news angered environmentalists, coming as it did during Al Gore's Climate Reality Project 24-hour global event. It follows closely on the heels of two similar decisions.
In August the Obama administration released an environmental impact statement for the controversial Keystone tar sands oil pipeline project -- a project that taps North America's second biggest pool of carbon, which prompted thousands of people to protest, including NASA's top climate scientist, James Hansen. The environmental impact statement doesn't mention the words "climate change."
In September Obama ordered the EPA to scale back on its commitment to create a science-based pollution standard for ground-level ozone -- a major component of smog -- that had been in the works for over a decade, and instead leave the 2008 Bush-era levels that ignored the advice of EPA scientists.
The Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority to set air quality standards based solely on the best available science, not economic or political pressures. Compliance costs can only be considered, by law, when the standard is implemented. The EPA's authority was reinforced by a 2001 Supreme Court decision authored by conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
The National Association of Clean Air Agencies reported that the EPA's own data show that the delay in new smog rules will cause more than 8,500 premature deaths, more than 45,000 cases of aggravated asthma, at least 1.5 million missed work or school days, and at least 5 million cases in which citizens will need to restrict activities.
"Put simply, every delay of long-overdue rules to curb pollution costs pushes us deeper into this climate crisis," said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute. "Our climate is changing rapidly and dramatically all around us, and the need for an effective response has never been more urgent. Yet this administration continues to delay taking even the most modest steps."
The EPA began the current process of revising the smog standard during the Clinton administration. After seven years of analysis, a unanimous independent Clean Air Science Advisory Committee affirmed the determination by EPA staff scientists that the standard should be set between 60 and 70 parts per billion (ppb). Multiple sources confirmed that the White House manipulated EPA documents and forced the agency to set the ozone standard weaker than the scientists had recommended -- and this arbitrary, unscientific standard will now remain in force.
President Obama pledged to restore science to its rightful place -- but he didn't say just what he thought that rightful place to be.