Let it smog


"Mush from the wimp." That's how Paul Krugman summed up President Obama's recent decision not to set tougher ozone standards, which would have helped force places like gas fields and cities nationwide to de-smog. In HCN's editorial bullpen, we too were scratching our heads when we heard the news last Friday. EPA scientists have recommended stricter regulation, and taking her cue from them, EPA chief Lisa Jackson has called the current standards legally indefensible. Nevertheless, the White House claims its decision bucking that scientific opinion had "nothing to do with politics, nothing at all." It's hard, though, to read it any other way. Obama seems to have caved to pressure from Republicans and industry, who day by day, chant their 'environmental regulations kill jobs' mantra at an ever-higher pitch.

But let's get real: No matter what Obama does at this point to court corporate or conservative favor, he's gonna get called a job killer come election season. So why thwart the ozone rules? Will looking like a pushover really do him any political good? I turned to the wisdom of the blogosphere for answers, or at least intelligent speculation. Here's a roundup of analysis on the political calculus and consequences of the ozone announcement:

'The courts made me do it!'

Sometimes, writes Eric Biber for Legal Planet, "agencies want to get sued." Legal wonks are dissecting whether the ozone decision was even legal under the Clean Air Act. And it's possible, says Biber, that the administration is betting -- even hoping -- that it's not:

(F)rom the Administration’s perspective, if the decision is, in fact, contrary to the Clean Air Act and is overturned by the courts, that could be a feature, not a bug. In that situation, the right outcome is achieved (both from a legal and policy perspective) but the Administration doesn’t have to take any political heat for it. They can always say: “The courts forced us to do it!” That might prompt some Congressional efforts to rewrite the Clean Air Act, but that would be politically challenging as well (who wants to be seen as voting for dirty air!). It’s a win-win for the Administration. 

...(I)t’s plausible to me that they are thinking this way, in part because this dynamic is not an unusual one.  I’ve heard anecdotal accounts of officials in other environmental agencies (besides EPA, such as the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service) more or less asking environmental groups to challenge an agency decision that was politically unpopular, but legally required and (from at least the agency’s perspective and the environmental groups’ perspectives) good policy.  Again, you get the better outcome, but the agency can avoid the political heat.

Bad policy

Back to Krugman:

(T)ighter ozone regulation would actually have created jobs: it would have forced firms to spend on upgrading or replacing equipment, helping to boost demand. Yes, it would have cost money — but that’s the point! And with corporations sitting on lots of idle cash, the money spent would not, to any significant extent, come at the expense of other investment.

Dishonest policy

From Reuter's columnist Christopher Swann

(D)ire predictions from affected industries in the past have proved wildly exaggerated — or just plain wrong. During the Clean Air Act debate 20 years ago, the Edison Electric Institute warned that tightened standards would lift electricity prices by up to 13 percent by around 2009. In fact they fell by some 20 percent as of 2006.

And in 1997 the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry group, warned that smog rules would wreak economic havoc. Yet regions that might have been affected actually had slightly better job creation rates on average than the nation as a whole in following years, according to a study by the Center for American Progress. Dropping the new rule also undermines generators that have tried to clean up ahead of time, including Exelon and GenOn Energy.

Questionable politics

From Michael Grunwald at Swampland:

One of President Obama's appealing qualities -- although, arguably, a source of some of his problems -- has been his stubborn insistence on a distinction between "governing" and "politicking." The ozone decision suggests to me that governing season is over for this term. Politicking season has begun.


I suspect that politically, the real danger in this kind of crass political calculation is undermining what's left of the Obama brand. (T)he Obama campaign doesn't seem to have a message for 2012. It's going to be hard to run on hope and change when unemployment is 9%. The argument that Obama's policies prevented even worse outcomes, while true, would be an even harder sell. Presumably, the main message will be that his Republican opponent is an extremist nut -- and chances are excellent that he'll have a plausible case to make. But it wouldn't hurt to be able to argue at the same time that whether or not Americans agree with everything he did, Obama has always tried to do the right thing for the country. He said in his Inaugural Address that he would restore science to its rightful place. "Under the bus" is not that place.

It's all about the independents

From The Hill:

“The first thing the Obama administration gains is the ability to say, ‘Look, I identified the most expensive regulation and I eliminated it,’” said (Kevin Book, an analyst with the consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners).

“He is never going to get Republican votes for loosening environmental standards, but he could get independent votes by showing flexibility on fiscal issues,” Book said.

And yes, it's all about politics (or, the importance of getting digs at the EPA on the public record)



From Politico:

Jeff Holmstead, an industry attorney and former EPA air chief during the George W. Bush administration, said he was surprised by the fact that Obama took the credit — or the blame — for yanking the rule himself.

“I expected that EPA would quietly withdraw the ozone rule without any fanfare,” he said in a statement. “The political folks at the White House must believe that the president needs to show that he is concerned about too much regulation from EPA.”

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor

Photo: Smoggy Los Angeles, courtesy of steven.buss. Licensed under Creative Commons.

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