by Lisa Heinzerling, Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center. The author was a political appointee at the Environmental Protection Agency from January 2009 to December 2010. She served on the EPA Presidential Transition Team in 2008.
The Environmental Protection Agency is under court order to issue, by December 1, a proposal to retain or revise the national air quality standards for ground-level ozone. Scientific studies have linked ozone, also known as smog, to a variety of adverse effects on public health and welfare. EPA's expert staff and its outside scientific advisors have recommended, based on this scientific evidence, that EPA set new, stronger standards for ozone. The Clean Air Act requires that air quality standards – "primary" standards for public health, "secondary" standards for public welfare – be set at levels "requisite to protect" public health and welfare. A central question for the proposal to be issued by December 1 is whether the current air quality standards for ozone, set at 75 parts per billion of ozone in the ambient air, adequately provide such protection.
At the moment, EPA's preferred approach to the ozone standards awaits White House clearance. EPA has sent a regulatory package – likely including, as is customary, the proposed standards, a formal explanation of EPA's choices, and an economic analysis of the proposal – to the White House for review. Under executive orders issued by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the President has asserted the authority to review significant agency rules like the ozone standard and to reject or revise them if they are not consistent with his policies or priorities. President Obama exercised this self-given power previously in the context of ozone, when in 2011 he ordered then-EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson to withdraw stronger, revised national air quality standards for ozone. As I will explain, President Obama's past exercise of power hangs over the current decision whether to revise the ozone standards.
Before President Obama ordered Administrator Jackson to withdraw the revised ozone standards she had developed, the EPA under Administrator Jackson had been working on the revised standards for years, indeed since the day President Obama took office. Revision was necessary, in EPA's view, because standards set during the administration of President George W. Bush had departed from the scientific evidence indicating that stronger rules were necessary to protect public health and welfare. Indeed, EPA's scientific advisors on air quality had reacted to the Bush-era standards by issuing a pointed, unsolicited rebuke, stating that the advisors did not endorse the Bush standards. Strengthening the Bush-era ozone standards was a core EPA priority in the early days of the Obama administration, offering an opportunity both to protect public health and welfare and to return the agency to scientifically sound decision making. No one would have guessed, then, that President Obama would eventually order Administrator Jackson to back off and leave the Bush-era standards in place. But that's what happened.