AIR POLLUTION:

Obama is asked to salute Clean Air Act in SOTU speech

As the White House gets ready for next week's State of the Union address, an influential public health group is asking President Obama to use the bully pulpit to preach the value of air pollution rules that are under attack by congressional Republicans.

President Obama has made overtures to critics of regulation in the aftermath of the midterm election, meeting with business leaders to ask their advice and issuing a new executive order that tells agencies to get rid of rules that cause needless harm to the economy (Greenwire, Jan. 18).

But in his announcement of the new regulatory policy, the president pointed to the Clean Air Act as an example of a law with ample benefits to the public -- a point that the American Lung Association wants him to drive home during Tuesday's speech. In a letter sent to the White House today, President and CEO Charles Connor asks Obama to make U.S. EPA's air pollution rules a "clear and urgent priority."

"Forty years of evidence shows that these health benefits come without harm to the economy," the letter says. "The public needs to be reminded that the Clean Air Act has prompted technological innovations that have led to much greater pollution reductions at much lower costs than forecasted."

The address comes at a time of nearly unprecedented rancor over the 40-year-old statute. In the opening days of the new Congress, critics have introduced bills that would block or delay a variety of rules and regulations on air pollution.

These lawmakers are trying to address concerns from industry groups, some of which claim that the Obama administration has tried to impose too many strict rules over a short period of time. Cal Dooley, president of the American Chemistry Council, responded to Obama's new executive order by saying that the administration has not paid enough attention to impacts on jobs.

"As the representative of a highly regulated industry, I can tell you that the rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency in the past two years will put tens of thousands of high-paying manufacturing jobs at risk," he wrote in a letter to Jack Lew, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. "Any economic model that comes to an alternative conclusion is suspect" (Greenwire, Jan. 19).

But while the president delivers the annual address to a joint session of Congress, the real audience is the American public, said Paul Billings, the American Lung Association's vice president for national policy and advocacy. More than anybody else, the president has the power to focus attention on the value of the federal government's work, he said.

"Everyone is against useless, unnecessarily burdensome regulations," Billings said. "However, everyone also supports air that's safe to breathe and water that's safe to drink, so we think the president can highlight the very real benefits of regulation through his address."

The letter also expresses disappointment about delays on national pollution limits and steps to reduce toxic emissions -- a reference to EPA's proposed limits on smog and standards for industrial boilers, both of which were delayed last month. As the president scrambles to respond to new political realities on Capitol Hill, the address could show where the administration is headed, environmentalists say.

"Right now, we're coming up to a real crunch time, because we know that in the next several months some very critical decisions are going to be made that could decide the course of clean air in this country for a generation," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch. "The State of the Union address is a great opportunity for the president to reaffirm the message that the Clean Air Act is a very valuable statute and to keep your hands off it, in terms of trying to undermine it."

Click here to read the letter.