EPA Postpones Another Air Rule

Two weeks ago, President Obama asked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to shelve plans to tighten the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone, leaving any reconsideration of the current standard until 2013. This past week, the EPA announced it was delaying the planned release of proposed regulations to control greenhouse gas emissions from power plants under the Clean Air Act. This is the second time EPA has delayed publication of these rules.

Viewed together, these decisions suggest the Obama Administration is making a conscious effort to moderate its regulatory policy, particularly in the environmental area. If so, why would this be? Could it possibly make political sense for the Obama Administration to acquiesce to GOP attacks on environmental protection? After all, as Ann Carlson noted at Legal Planet, environmental protection remains popular,and polls suggest relatively few Americans believe environmental regulation costs jobs (though it can).

It is inconceivable that the Obama Administration believes that these moves will placate Tea Party opposition or win plaudits from across the aisle. But that’s not the point. Nor is aggregate popular opinion on these questions particularly relevant to the political calculus. Rather, as I noted in comments to Ann Carlson’s post, what matters are the views of marginal voters and, in particular, marginal voters in politically significant states. That is, the opinions of moderates and independents in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia matter more than the views of environmental activists in San Francisco or Washington, D.C.

Viewed in this light, the political rationale of these decisions is easier to understand. Insofar as these moves are politically inspired, it would appear the aim is to placate those potential constituencies in battleground states most sensitive to the costs of new and impending environmental regulations. Think coal and power company unions, small businesses in what remains of the industrial midwest, and moderate Democrats in state and local governments whose enthusiasm is essential for voter turnout. These sorts of groups are more likely to notice whether the Obama Administration appears to be moderating the EPA’s regulatory zeal or tightening the screws, and such issues may influence their votes.  There’s a reason Joe Manchin (D-WV) ran against environmental regulation, and the White House is certainly understands where proposed environmental rules would have the greatest economic effect.

None of this means that the Obama Administration’s decisions were politically driven — I have no deep inside sources — or that they are politically wise.  The ozone NAAQS decision was almost certainly political, but the latest decision may well have been influenced by other concerns.  But if the Obama Administration is deliberately trimming the EPA’s sails, the political calculus is easy to understand.