In Smog Rule Fight, Industry Groups Make their Push in Purple States

A methodical ad campaign targets swing states on the controversial regulation.

While the Obama administration spends the month promoting its much-awaited climate-change rule limiting carbon emissions from the power sector, industry groups are instead trying to put the brakes on a different environmental regulation.

In a methodical march through swing states, major business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are launching attacks against the Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to limit ground-level smog (also known as ozone pollution), calling it the most expensive regulation in history.

And they may have picked up an influential purple-state Democrat, as Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado said Wednesday that he was "deeply concerned" about the EPA's proposal, although he stopped short of saying he opposed it.

The lobbying campaign has so far targeted Colorado, Ohio, and Virginia, and is expanding this week to Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, with more states on the horizon. They tend to follow the same model: playing up numbers about the employment and cost impact of new rules, a Chamber of Commerce report about harm to local transportation projects, and ads about the EPA cracking down. The Environmental Policy Alliance came out with its own ad branding the Environmental Protection Agency as cops ready to crack down on lawn mowing and parking spaces.

Opponents have also recruited members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and local African-American groups, among others, in a bid to build a local-level opposition campaign and get the issue in front of lawmakers during the August recess.

"Common sense; does it exist in our nation's capital?," asks a National Association of Manufacturers television ad running this week in Wisconsin. The ad goes on to say the new rules will "stifle our economy and kill millions of jobs" and highlights opposition from states and mayors.

Environmentalists say the ads are full of exaggerations and are a desperate attempt to derail much-needed regulation, but the flurry of attention shows how significant the ozone rule is. It would lower the legal limit of ground-level smog pollution and require state and local governments to limit pollutants that create ozone, such as manufacturing and transportation emissions.

The timing of the push seems odd—the EPA isn't required the finalize their rule until Oct. 1 and the environmental community has largely been focused on the landmark rule putting limits on greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants, the centerpiece of President Obama's climate agenda.

But the ozone rule occupies a massive space in the environmental lobbying war. Industry groups say it's the most expensive regulation that the administration will undertake, with effects that would ripple across the economy. Environmentalists, meanwhile, say it's a public-health necessity and are determined to protect it, especially since the White House pulled the plug on tightening the standard in 2011.

While the White House has given no indication it's going to reverse itself this time, the business lobby is holding out hope that by pushing on soft-purple states, they can build up a groundswell to make history repeat itself. Or, at the very least, they can put the screws on vulnerable members to pass legislation limiting the standards.

"Counties and localities are going to be hit over and over again on an economic basis, and we want everyone to understand that," said Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers. "We're rolling this out where the discussion has been most intense "¦ and ultimately we'd like to take this to all 50 states."

The EPA last year proposed lowering the ozone standard from 75 parts per billion to between 65 and 70 ppb after agency scientists said the current mark was not sufficient to protect public health. The rule is set to be finalized this fall.

Public-health groups are pushing for the EPA to look to the low end of the standard. The EPA has said tightening the standard would avert nearly a million asthma attacks, thousands of cases of acute bronchitis, and up to 180,000 missed work days by reducing pollution-related symptoms.

But industry groups say anything lower than the current standard would plunge the country into nonattainment status, opening counties and states up to costly fines. They say the country has already lowered ozone levels by more than 30 percent since 1980 (coming after standards from the Clean Air Act went into effect), and that more stringent regulations would put a stranglehold on the economy, especially for areas already out of compliance.

The new standards wouldn't take effect until 2020 at the earliest; because of the long time line of air quality standards, states are still working on implementation plans for the last revision, set in 2008.

Legal challenges have proven unsuccessful, so industry groups are now trying to build public opposition from the ground up, releasing state-level reports and using local businesses to make the case. The Chamber of Commerce has also been releasing individual reports warning that EPA could imperil local transportation projects if cities fail to meet the new standard (a report for Washington, for example, said an expansion of the Purple Line and I-66 would be in jeopardy).

The EPA could penalize transportation funding, but only for states that refuse to file state plans, and it's an authority that hasn't been used before.

And recent ad campaigns have pointed out that certain National Parks, including Yellowstone and Acadia, would be out of compliance using the lower end of the proposal, although parks groups have said that's because of pollution from nearby coal-fired power plants.

It all adds up to a lobbying blitz meant to mobilize local voters and officials to send a message to the White House.

"Remember that President Obama withdrew the last EPA ozone proposal in 2011 after listening to state and local concerns," said Matt Dempsey of the Center for Regulatory Solutions. "Through our August campaign we have been amplifying similar voices from across the political spectrum hoping he will listen to them again and keep the current standard in place."

The White House pulled a proposal lowering the standard to 70 ppb in 2011, overruling the EPA and setting of a firestorm with environmental groups. Of course, Obama was facing a tight reelection race then, and his environmental agenda has ramped up in the second term.

But groups are also looking to Congress—and their campaign not-so-subtly targets states where legislators face tough reelection bids. A bipartisan Senate bill forcing EPA to hold off on the new ozone standard until 85 percent of the nation's counties meet the 2008 levels already has 27 cosponsors. And Republicans have sought to attach similar language as a rider to appropriations bills as one of a slew of environmental riders.

Bennet said Wednesday at an energy summit hosted by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association that the ozone standard "is a perfect example of applying the law "¦ in a way that doesn't make sense on the ground" and that EPA should consider more flexibility for pollutants from wildfires or from other states, according to a transcript of his remarks. Bennet's office clarified that he understands EPA "must make recommendations based on the science," but that he "thinks the standards need to be applied fairly to Colorado."

Bennet, one of the most vulnerable Democrats in 2016, would represent a significant pickup for ozone opponents should be vote against the rule on the floor. Republicans largely oppose the regulations, but turning moderate Democrats would help them attach anti-ozone language onto a must-pass bill, like a budget package.

And environmentalists are worried that the White House may see ozone as a reasonable trading chip when faced with a slew of other riders targeting the climate-change agenda.

"I'm very concerned about it because of the weak-kneed approach the White House took several years ago," said Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch. "The battle here is to pile on Democratic politicians and intimidate the White House."

Still, John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, pointed to White House veto threats against similar bills. In an email, he dismissed the campaign as "increasingly desperate and scattershot" and proof that even the industry thinks they can't kill the standards any other way.

"So a crass political lobbying campaign is all they have, even when—especially when—it means relying almost entirely and nakedly on economic factors that the Supreme Court has ruled unanimously to be illegal considerations," Walke said.