In 2011, President Obama famously called for “shared sacrifice” in America. Three years later, his wish might just become the Environmental Protection Agency’s command.
In the coming months, Obama’s EPA will decide whether to further tighten air quality requirements, known as the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). If EPA gets its way (to which it is accustomed), the vast majority of the country, including most of Florida, would fall into so-called non-attainment, (when EPA deems air levels “persistently exceed” limits) up from a few isolated regions just five years ago — all while air quality continues to steadily improve.
It’s an overreach that promises shared pain for minimal gain — one that serves only to extend Obama’s control over the economy and burnish his legacy as a green warrior.
Some background is necessary. The Clean Air Act requires EPA to set air quality standards for “pollutants considered harmful to public health and the environment.” EPA has set standards for six common pollutants, including ground-level ozone, the main ingredient of smog.
Three years ago, EPA proposed to cut the ozone standard by 20 percent from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to as low as 60 ppb. But political pressures forced Obama to pull the plug on the rule, which EPA estimates would have cost up to $90 billion per year, to make sure “our economy continues to recover.”
What a difference three years makes. EPA is expected to re-issue its 60 ppb proposal by the end of the year, yet new research finds the new standards could be “the most expensive regulation the U.S. government has ever issued.”
The report, authored by NERA Economic Consulting on behalf of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), paints a grim picture: U.S. GDP declines $270 billion per year through 2040; the labor force sheds an equivalent of 2.9 million jobs per year; and household consumption falls $1,570 per year.
Local impacts are even more acute. The revised standards would throw much of the Sunshine State into “extreme” non-attainment status, threatening the equivalent of more than 52,000 jobs per year and slashing average household consumption by almost $500 per year. Few regions would be spared.
What does the country stand to gain from all this “shared sacrifice”? Not much, if you look at the numbers and tune out the rhetoric. Over the last three decades, emissions from the six common pollutants declined 67 percent, according to EPA data. These improvements led EPA to conclude in 2008 that the 75 ppb standard protects public health.
Now EPA claims those standards aren’t sufficient. But have America’s pollution gains suddenly evaporated over the last few years? Not so, by EPA’s own admission. According to an EPA air quality report released last year, emissions dropped nearly 40 percent between 2005 and 2012 — that’s a faster rate of decline over any five-year period since 1980, according to the Institute for Energy Research.
Hubris and politics are more likely explanations for EPA’s actions. Over the course of his presidency, Obama has deployed EPA for two purposes: as a tool for raw political power and as a means to burnish his presidential legacy — often, one purpose supports the other.
For example, when cap-and-trade failed in Congress in 2010 despite Democratic majorities in both chambers, Obama opted to impose de facto cap-and-trade by instructing the EPA to require states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
In theory, EPA claims the rule gives states “flexibility” to craft their own emission reduction plans. In practice, by imposing standards for states instead of individual plants, the proposal pushes states into regional carbon trading schemes.
America shouldn’t sacrifice its economic growth at the altar of President Obama’s legacy. Clean air is a laudable goal, one the country has made great strides toward. But the administrative dictates from Obama’s EPA only advance our declining role in the world and symbolize a growing fear that we’re becoming a country of “non-attainment.”
That doesn’t bode well for America’s legacy, no less the president’s.
Anastasia Swearingen is a senior research analyst for the Environmental Policy Alliance, a project of the nonprofit Center for Organizational Research and Education. CORE is supported by a wide variety of businesses and foundations, including those in the hospitality, agriculture and energy industries.