President Obama is under fire for ordering the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) not to update national ambient air quality standards for ozone.
It is expected that the 2 September move will result in legal action by environmental groups.
Obama said his administration had taken some of the strongest actions to protect human health and the environment from air pollution since the enactment of the Clean Air Act four decades ago, but he also emphasised the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and uncertainty.
“Work is already underway to update a 2006 review of the science that will result in the reconsideration of the ozone standard in 2013,” Obama said. “Ultimately, I did not support asking state and local governments to begin implementing a new standard that will soon be reconsidered.”
The President said his administration would “continue to vigorously oppose” efforts to weaken EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act.
These assurances aside, reaction to Obama’s decision from science advocacy and environmental groups was harsh.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) said the President’s decision meant that ground-level ozone standards would remain outside the scientifically acceptable range of between 60 and 70 parts per billion recommended by an independent scientific advisory committee and EPA scientists in 2007.
“They’ve allowed politics to trump science at the expense of the American people’s health,” said Francesca Grifo, director of UCS’ scientific integrity programme.
“The law requires EPA to update a new standard based solely on the science. Scientific recommendations were finalised five years ago. But when industry objected, the administration accepted the industry’s economic scare tactics at face value.”
Grifo said Obama’s action set a dangerous precedent for all science-based public health, safety and environmental protection.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) also attacked the administration.
“The White House is siding with corporate polluters over the American people,” said the NRDC’s president, Frances Beinecke.
“The Clean Air Act clearly requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set protective standards against smog-based on science and the law,” he added. “The White House now has polluted that process with politics.”
Former Vice-President Al Gore, a climate change champion, also rebuked Obama in a 7 September statement posted online titled “confronting Disappointment”.
“Instead of relying on science, President Obama appears to have bowed to pressure from polluters who did not want to bear the cost of implementing new restrictions on their harmful pollution–even though economists have shown that the US economy would benefit from the job creating investments associated with implementing the new technology,” he wrote.
“The result of the White House’s action will be increased medical bills for seniors with lung disease, more children developing asthma, and the continued degradation of our air quality.”