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Trump walks back campaign promise, White House will defend Obama ozone rule

It's a surprising move since Trump vowed on the campaign trail to do away with the rule.

Buildings stand downtown on April 2, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. According to the American Lung Association's 'State of the Air 2017' report, the Los Angeles region had the highest number of unhealthy days in the nation for ozone pollution between 2013-2015. CREDIT: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Buildings stand downtown on April 2, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. According to the American Lung Association's 'State of the Air 2017' report, the Los Angeles region had the highest number of unhealthy days in the nation for ozone pollution between 2013-2015. CREDIT: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Trump administration will defend an Obama-era smog rule against a lawsuit brought by industry groups and officials from a number of states, including former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt. The decision walks back a 2016 campaign promise made by President Donald Trump.

In a move that surprised green groups, the EPA said Wednesday afternoon that it will stand by a 2015 rule tightening standards for ground-level ozone from 75 parts per billion to 70. Ground-level ozone is the primary ingredient in smog — it results from the emission of fossil fuel pollutants from cars and power plants into the air. The resulting pollution is hazardous to human health.

“While EPA officials in the current administration may have supported making different judgments about the significance of background concentrations of ozone and how to judge what standards are requisite to protect public health and welfare, the agency at this time does not intend to revisit the 2015 rule,” the EPA said in a court filing.

As a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump previously pledged to repeal the rule. He argued that the regulations have been costly for business and indicated that he would do away with the standards.

The Wednesday announcement also comes one day after the EPA released its annual air quality assessment report, which found that air pollution has decreased and ozone, one of six pollutants tracked within the assessment, has dropped 22 percent. The EPA noted that the drop is thanks in no small part to the 2015 rule.

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When the Obama administration introduced the regulations, the EPA argued the new standards would prevent thousands of early deaths in addition to saving Americans billions in related health care expenses.

Public health groups, however, have previously argued that the 2015 revision does not go far enough and that the standard should be even stronger. Meanwhile, fossil fuel interests have pushed for the opposite, as have conservative officials.

When Pruitt was attorney general for the state of Oklahoma, he actively fought against the rule, working to delay its implementation and to overturn the policy. This legal action was also joined by Murray Energy, a coal company once represented by current acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler during his time as a lobbyist, although Wheeler was not involved with the lawsuit.

Later, as EPA administrator, Pruitt attempted to delay the ozone standard-setting rule in 2017 by one year over outcry from health groups and environmentalists. The EPA eventually relented after 15 states and the District of Columbia sued over that decision, allowing it to take effect.

The initial case that Pruitt, as attorney general, helped to bring against the regulations, however, remains ongoing, despite a lull in April last year when a judge allowed the EPA to review the rule. And it is this lawsuit that the Trump administration, according to the brief filed Wednesday, will now defend the standards against.

The EPA’s move was welcomed by environmental activists, who said they would argue in favor of the rule in court.

“We’re glad to have our chance to argue that the standard is not as protective as it’s legally required to be,” said Earthjustice attorney Seth Johnson. “We had wanted the chance to do that in April 2017 and we’re glad to get the chance to do it now.”