Sunday, October 2, 2011

Obama and Environmental Regulation

This post is by Claire Austin (SFS '12), co-president of EcoAction.

When I voted for Obama in 2008 (take that, underclassmen) I was sure he’d be the meanest, greenest President we’ve ever had. At first it seemed to be the case: the administration made strengthening environmental regulations a policy priority, and started programs like Cash for Clunkers. This was the administration when the Waxman-Markey bill passed in the house (gasp!) and the EPA, now under the guidance of Lisa Jackson, was well on the way to setting a maximum ground-level ozone limit recommended by the panel of scientists that advise the EPA on Clean Air Act Issues. We were sure that when the Affordable Care Act passed, the environment would be next on the agenda.


Ground-level ozone is the main component of smog, and is created when sunlight interacts with chemicals released from combusting fuels and other industrial processes. It has the same chemical composition as the layer of the stuff in the atmosphere famous for its hole, but the O3 molecule’s concentration in the lower levels of the atmosphere is dangerous for living things. Ozone, like other gases, is measured in parts per billion. If you have a billion marbles, the EPA says that 75 of these marbles can be ozone. This means manufacturers have to work to reduce their emissions of the gases that lead to ozone buildup at the local level. The limit was set in 2008, when former EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson lowered the limit from 84ppb. The EPA was recently told to stop its progress in drafting a regulation that would lower the limit further to between 60 and 70ppb.

According to the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, lowering the ozone limit from 75 to 70ppb would prevent 2,200 heart attacks and 23,000 asthma attacks a year. The current limit was based on a 2006 scientific study of the health effects of ozone at the local level; another study will be conducted in 2013. In January, the EPA began work drafting a new set of Ozone National Ambient Air Quality standards that would be enacted this February. On September 2nd, the White House issued a statement that President Obama had asked Administrator Jackson to withdraw the draft of the standards.

ozone-pollution-smog.jpgRight now, I’d guess that environmentalists’ bigger beef with the Obama administration is the Keystone XL Pipeline (see Madeline Collins’ coverage for more info). This may not seem like a huge deal, especially if new standards are adopted in a few years (hopefully) but the ozone level issue is indicative of larger issues that are potentially much more dangerous.

All over the country, states are scaling back environmental quality regulations on the grounds that they make it too expensive for businesses to operate and thus hold back the economy. The House recently passed the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act, which would give states the power to set and enforce regulations on water quality through their respective Departments of Environmental Protection. Some states, as you can imagine, are a little more stringent than others.

It’s more than an issue of regulations versus rights (or, for that matter, public health). It’s a continuation of the false dichotomy between the environment and the economy. It could be worse: according to the Times, Rick Perry has special feelings for the EPA. Still, as long as “they” (the Obama administration, Congress, your uncle) give into the false choice between protecting natural resources and increasing jobs, and then continue to pick the latter, there will be little progress and little hope for people who like to breathe air and drink water.

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