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Boxer Wants Clean Air Groups to Sue White House Over Ozone Rules

The Obama Administration environmental agenda has underwhlemed progressive supporters over the past week, to say the least. The rollback of ozone regulations will keep the country on a 1997 standard, worse than what the Bush Administration proposed in the waning days of his second term, and will lead to more asthma cases, more public health problems and more deaths. The battle over the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is moving away from activists as well. Thousands of them were arrested in Washington during two weeks of action, but in that time the State Department put out a whitewash of an environmental analysis, and the Administration does appear poised to rubber-stamp the project.

The Administration clearly sees no advantage in climate actions right now, headed into the election, far more concerned with fending off Republican attacks about “regulatory uncertainty” or “the need for domestic energy production.” So they drill more than ever and allow outdated clean air regulations to continue and facilitate a tar sands production scheme that will produce massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.

There’s another line of attack that enviro groups can use, however. And they have a champion in Senator Barbara Boxer, the Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee:

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer said she hopes green groups sue President Barack Obama over his decision to punt a regulation curbing smog-creating emissions until at least 2013.

Boxer — whose relatively mild reaction to Obama’s surprise announcement Friday was in contrast to heated rebukes by environmental groups — said she will stand by those groups in any litigation to force the administration to issue a final ozone rule that goes beyond what was enacted by President George W. Bush.

Environmental groups charged that Obama made a political calculus by punting on a rule that was a particular target of critics who charge his regulatory agenda has hurt the economy and jobs.

Boxer didn’t quite go there. “I’m not making any charge. I’m just saying I disagree, strongly, with their decision,” she told reporters Tuesday. She added, “And I hope they’ll be sued in court and I hope the court can stand by the Clean Air Act.”

The standing statute in place should be enough to force new standards into being. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said recently that even the Bush-era final rules (which were enacted but not implemented, as the Obama Administration told states to hold off on implementation while they promulgated their own rule) was “legally indefensible.” That will get a test drive. The American Lung Association plans to file the lawsuit that would force changes to the ozone standard.

Boxer also challenged the prevailing wisdom that regulations like this hurt the economy. “If you factor in the health benefits you save so many lives and you prevent so many hospital admissions that it’s a big plus for the economy,” she said. Boxer planned a hearing on this issue in the coming weeks.

This is a reaction to a balanced statement Boxer put out in the immediate wake of the news on ozone. She got pressure, and had to come out and say that she hoped that advocates would sue the White House. Given her environmental record, she was a pressure point for advocates. In this case, the pressure worked.

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David Dayen

David Dayen