U.S. EPA has sent the White House a set of final rules to update the national air quality standards for smog, signaling that the Obama administration will make up its mind soon after pushing back the controversial decision three times.
The rules received by the White House Office of Management and Budget yesterday are expected to seek a stricter limit on the acceptable amount of ozone in the air. Administrator Lisa Jackson, who decided to revisit the George W. Bush-era standards as one of her first steps after being appointed, has repeatedly vowed to set a standard that is strong enough to protect public health.
"We know we have a rulemaking to do, and we know the American people are waiting for the new ozone standard," Jackson told reporters last week after unveiling new interstate pollution rules for power plants in the East.
Jackson has promised a federal court that the rule will be released at the end of this month, and she said last week that her agency was working hard to follow that schedule, but according to a White House database that tracks the rulemaking process, the final rule is expected to come out in August.
The signature federal program for smog is the standard for ground-level ozone, which can scorch the lungs and cause breathing problems at high enough concentrations in the air. In order to keep their air clean and avoid federal fines, state and local governments must order businesses to cut their emissions.
EPA's scientific advisers suggested a standard between 60 and 70 parts per billion (ppb) in 2006 after reviewing the latest studies, but then-Administrator Stephen Johnson set a standard of 75 ppb, down from the previous standard of 84 ppb.
Jackson proposed a standard between 60 and 70 ppb in January 2010, saying that final rules would come out in August. That decision was pushed back to October, and then to December, and now to July 29.
Many business groups and congressional Republicans argue that the stricter standards would cost billions of dollars and require cleanups in many new parts of the country, pushing heavy industry away from the United States. They are urging EPA to wait until the next review wraps up in 2013.
But environmental groups, which were enraged by the last administration's decision, say the health benefits are reason enough for Obama to change course now.
"We sincerely hope and expect these standards will reflect the advice of EPA's science advisers and will better protect health than would the standards set by the Bush administration," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch.