What Might Obama Retreat on Air Regulation Portend?

President Obama's quiet decision last week to delay tightening of anti-smog regulations has alarmed environmentalists and his more liberal constituents, perhaps more because of its political tone than its substantive content. In giving job creation precedence over environmental standards—thus conceding something that doesn't need to be conceded, namely that environmental progress can only be made at the cost of economic growth--is the president setting the stage for a retreat on carbon regulation?

Several years ago a Supreme Court decision found that the Environmental Protection Agency could and probably should regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean  Air Act and its amendments. The Obama EPA has been getting set to issue such regulations toward the end of this year. Furthermore, EPA's authority to act has been the president's trump card in struggling with Congress over climate legislation. If Congress failed to enact a cap-and-trade bill or a carbon tax, in effect the White House could simply issue decrees to cut emissions.

Might the president now give away that trump card? If tighter smog regulation is bad for jobs doesn't it follow that tighter carbon regulation also would be bad for jobs? John Walke, an air quality expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, takes comfort in the complete unpredictability of Washington politics: "One thing I've learned never to do after spending nearly 20 years in Washington is to confuse logic and politics," says Walke. "What distinguishes carbon from ozone is the central reason cited by the president in his ozone decision," namely, a pending 2013 review of the ozone standard" last set during George W. Bush's administration.  That is to say, an ozone standard already exists and the issue is how strict to make it, but a carbon standard has yet to be created.

The ozone standard, by the way, is not to be confused with the important cross-state pollution rule, which courts struck down during the Bush years and the Obama administration recently reformulated and re-issued. It, at least to date, is intact.

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