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Lost In The Ozone Again

Desperate for a Trump defeat and seeking political relevance, media get it wrong

Parrot opportunistic declarations of victory

[Update: 10/10/17 – The NY Times documents 52 environmental rules being rolled back by Trump, yet despite all that, they still think that EPA Pruitt “changed course” on the ozone standard!!! ~~~ end update]

If you read press coverage of the Trump EPA’s most recent press statement on the national ozone air quality standard, there are 3 main points you come away with:

1) responding to public pressure, bad press, and litigation, the Trump administration backed away from their ill-advised attempt to rollback the standard and have reversed policy and agreed to implement the Obama EPA standard;

2) the State AG’s and Big Green litigants had a “win” for public health and the Trump EPA suffered an embarrassing political setback;

3) the Obama EPA ozone standard will be implemented expeditiously and the public health will benefit from cleaner air.

All of them are outright false or highly misleading.

This is another example of: 1) opportunistic political players (e.g. NY State AG) self promoting; 2) environmental groups spinning and prematurely declaring victory; 3) environmental groups’ and media’s shared lack of understanding of the regulatory process, which makes it very easy to spin; and 4) media’s desperate need for relevance and incentives to take credit and declare their own sort of victory (e.g. our coverage was influential and led to the policy reversal).

The facts of the matter are: 1) There was no reversal in policy. 2) Trump EPA will not implement the Obama standard. 3) There will be little if any air quality improvement towards attainment of the standard and associated public health benefits. 4) This is not a political or legal win by State AG’s or environmental groups. Just the opposite. Pruitt doubled down and thumbed his nose at and mocked the Democratic AG’s and environmental group litigants.

Not only do environmental groups and media not understand the regulatory process – or the science or law – they fail to distinguish a press statement from a formal regulatory action. They don’t know a ploy from a policy. They don’t even know how to read a press statement. Worse, they naively fail to understand just how cynical, corrupt, and dishonest the Trump administration is. Instead of acknowledging this inconvenient truth, they instead promote their own institutional interests. Disgusting.

Here is the NY Times version: “EPA reverses course on ozone rule” and here is the Washington Post’s: Reversing course, Trump administration will not delay an Obama ozone rule

But let’s drill down on the NJ Spotlight coverage to explain.

But first, hit the link and read the actual EPA statement.

Note 2 things in EPA’s statement:

1) right up front, EPA reserves the right to issue another 1 year extension, so the so called “reversal” in policy is not unconditional (and it is not even a “reversal”, as we note below):

The Clean Air Act gives EPA the flexibility to allow one additional year for sufficient information to support ozone designations.  EPA may take future action to use its delay authority and all other authority legally available to the Agency to ensure that its designations are founded on sound policy and the best available information.

2) By making that statement, EPA effectively mooted the litigation and took the issue out of the courts and kept the ball in EPA’s court.

This manipulative move dodges judicial oversight and allows States, industry, and EPA to exploit numerous technical issues and provides EPA with virtually unbounded legal discretion to delay State implementation and EPA enforcement of the standard.

Pruitt makes all that very clear by emphasizing that EPA will “ensure that its designations are founded on sound policy and the best available information.”

Mr. Pruitt and the Trump administration have very different conceptions of “sound policy” and “best available information”.

And “best available information” is a far broader concept and much weaker standard than “best available science“, so in reality the Trump EPA just made a major announcement about weakening the scientific and legal bases for regulation. Wow! (compare the EPA Mission Statement (which presents the correct legal standard as “best scientific information”) and note how Pruitt omitted the word “scientific” in favor of the broader “information”!)

Upon close and informed reading, that EPA press release language completely destroys any inference that the Trump EPA somehow reversed course and substantively changed policy.

Additionally, Pruitt makes all that very clear politically by emphasizing EPA’s deference to the States:

“We believe in dialogue with, and being responsive to, our state partners.  Today’s action reinforces our commitment to working with the states through the complex designation process,” said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

“Responsive to state partners” is code for no EPA pressure on states to comply in a timely manner and no EPA enforcement of state footdraging, delays, and even outright defiance.

BTW, you can thank Bill Clinton and Al Gore’s “reinventing government” for that Federalist Society’s “States rights” approach to abolishing traditional strict federal oversight of State’s in favor of the “Performance Partnership” (AKA at US EPA as “NEPPS”.)

Highlighting the “complex designation process” is code for “manufacturing uncertainty” – a classic “no action” or regulatory delay strategy.

On top of all that, Pruitt’s concluding remark about “we don’t believe in regulation through litigation” is a slap in the face to the Courts, State AG’s and environmental litigants.

Sorry, but this was no “win” for State AG’s, “Big Green”, and public health.

Finally, the NJ Spotlight story lacks context – specifically, while it correctly includes criticism of President Trump,  it fails to mention the fact that President Obama killed former EPA Lisa Jackson’s proposed ozone standard.

Here’s how the NY Times reported that Obama rollback on September 2, 2011 – they too seem to have amnesia, even regarding their own coverage:

“Reaction from environmental advocates ranged from disappointment to fury, with several noting that in just the past month the administration had tentatively approved drilling in the Arctic, given an environmental green light to the 1,700-mile Keystone XL oil pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to Texas and opened 20 million more acres of the Gulf of Mexico to drilling.  ~~~ Obama Administration Abandons Stricter Air-Quality Rules

So, did everyone forget that Obama also “over-reached”? I sure didn’t, and criticized and wrote about it at the time:

The NJ Spotlight and WaPo  coverage also fail to mention another key fact: that the Obama EPA standard is weak.

Obama’s second term EPA Administrator, Gina McCarthy – who naively recently predicted a Trump/Pruitt failure in deregulation – rejected scientific recommendations and set the 70 ppb standard “far less strict” than the science supported.

The NY Times story mentions this fact in a curious way, stressing industry’s perspective instead of scientists and public health experts that it was “far less protective”:

In October 2015 the Obama administration set a new national standard for ozone of 70 parts per billion, down from 75 parts per billion. It was far less strict than manufacturers had feared, but industry leaders still criticized the rule as overly burdensome.).

Did Ms. McCarthy “under-reach”?

Where was Big Green litigation and press criticism when all that went down?

Word.

[End Note: I stole that headline from Commander Cody.]

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