Update: Another Environmental Retreat by the Obama Administration?

by Bill Chameides | October 13th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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What should we chalk the government’s recent rollbacks on regulating pollution up to? Routine delays? Tactical moves? Or something else?

The Environmental Protection Agency “tweaks” its newly minted regulation of power plant emissions in 27 eastern states.

Last month I tried to read the tea leaves when the Obama administration announced a retreat from its proposed tighter air quality standards on ozone pollution (one of the main components of smog) — a “tactical retreat,” I wondered, or an “abdication” on the president’s commitment to the environment?

Perhaps just a tactical retreat, I surmised, noting that Obama was still pushing forward on other important environmental fronts. These fronts included:

  1. the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions on electric utilities (the result of a settlement [pdf] reached between the government and the 11 states and three environmental groups that had sued it) and
  2. the regulation mentioned in the lead, the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule that would reduce power plant emissions that cause ground-level ozone pollution, smog, fine particle pollution, and acid rain in 27 eastern states.

A comment on my “tea leaves” post — arguably an ominous one — suggested we should wait to see what happens before crediting the administration.

So now, a little more than a month later, it appears that caveats to those earlier caveats are needed.

1. EPA’s Missed Deadlines on Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Here’s a snapshot of EPA’s moving-target timeline:

No word yet as to whether or not EPA’s new schedule (yet to be announced) will still be able to meet the May 2012 deadline for a final rule for regulating these emissions.

Now, before jumping to conclusions about the significance of this delay, it’s worth considering that delays in promulgating rules are not all that unusual. (Coal ash offers a recent case in point: Yesterday EPA announced more comments were needed on its long delayed designation for the toxic stuff that spewed over farmlands and streams in Tennessee almost three years ago.)

2. Revisions to the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule

Last week, the long-awaited, freshly minted regulation aimed at tackling sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) from power plants in 27 states got that “tweak” I mentioned in the opening. The reason? Apparently, after finalizing the rule back in July, EPA received new data that made it necessary to loosen the emissions reductions in 10 states. Especially benefited by this revision is Texas — which coincidentally had filed suit in federal court over the new rule.

So how loose are EPA’s downward revisions in the 10 states? Well, the rules are designed to work in conjunction with other state and federal actions, so you can’t really separate out all the bits and pieces, but it looks like we’re talking about allowing some 1.3 to 3.8 percent ($sub req’ed) more soot-forming SO2 emissions and smog-forming NOx emissions annually. Those changes are pretty small when you consider that the full slate of regulations [pdf] is designed to reduce 2014 emissions by 54 percent for NOx and 73 percent for SO2 as compared to 2005 levels.

A Cave to Political Pressure?

OK, so here are the arguments in defense of the administration:

Greenhouse gas rule: Hey, we’re only talking about a delay in promulgating a rule. Such delays happen all the time. And this stuff is anything but simple.

Cross-state Air Pollution Rule: Don’t make a mountain out of a tweak, or, in the words of the administration, “a normal technical change based on new information.”

The current political climate has forced the administration to circle the wagons on environmental issues. Recent events suggest that the circle continues to get tighter and tighter. At some point a tighter circle will mean giving up a wagon or two.

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