In reversing plans to impose new controls on smog, President Barack Obama elevated his political future above the nation's health. That's the clear picture from a New York Times article last week that chronicled the backroom machinations at the White House before Obama killed plans by his Environmental Protection Agency to set stricter standards on the emissions from cars and industrial facilities. It wasn't the first time that Obama has caved in to business interests at the expense of public health because of political calculations.
Smog is a by-product of the fumes spewed by tailpipes and industrial smokestacks. It causes serious health problems and premature death among millions of Americans who suffer from heart and lung disease. Scientists had pushed the EPA under Obama to build on a compromise by then-President George W. Bush to lower emission limits. Obama's EPA proposed lowering the limit to about 70 parts per billion, not as low as what health care advocates wanted but better than the limits under Bush and his predecessor, President Bill Clinton.
Obama reversed course more than a year-and-a-half after EPA administrator Lisa Jackson unveiled the proposal, and just as the agency was putting the rules into play. Obama said at the time he was worried the lower limits would be too costly for industry and government, worsening the unemployment picture. But as the New York Times reported, the White House, led by chief of staff William Daley, brushed aside assurances by the EPA and its supporters that the costs would have been more than recouped in savings from avoided health care spending and lost workdays. The changes also would have been phased in over decades, giving states and industrial polluters time to take advantage of new, clean-energy technologies.
Obama talked big about returning science to its rightful place in driving environmental policy. But he is as guilty as Bush in abandoning principle when it suits his political purposes. The lower limit could have prevented thousands of premature deaths from heart and lung disease. It would have spared millions from the pain and costs associated with serious asthma and other health problems. And it would have especially helped seniors and children in warm states such as Florida. The state reported in 2009 that 1.5 million children and adults in Florida lived with chronic pulmonary diseases, with an estimated annual cost of treating asthma in the state topping $570 million. Obama's move only undermines his drive to expand health care coverage and emboldens polluters and his Republican opponents to attack environmental programs across a broader scale.
The president said the EPA could reconsider the rule changes in 2013 — after next year's elections. That timing only underscores the political nature of the retreat. And along with delaying new rules for power plant emissions, and caving to Florida polluters on new clean-water standards, it's fair for environmentalists to question how well Obama has protected the environment and the health of all Americans.