Pruitt reverses course on smog rule delay after 16 states sue

EPA chief's reversal came two days after states filed lawsuit against agency.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

One day after getting sued by 15 states, the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday reversed course on its plans to delay implementation of Obama-era rules intended to reduce emissions of smog-causing air pollutants.

The 15 states and the District of Columbia sued the EPA, saying that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s proposed one-year delay in compliance deadlines for the 2015 Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards violate the requirements of the Clean Air Act. The Obama-era regulation lowered the allowable concentration of ozone to 70 parts per billion, from the previous 75.

In June, the EPA announced it was delaying identifying the areas that must clean up their air because they violate the 2015 smog standard. This would mean polluters would escape the effective pollution controls the Clean Air Act requires. Public health and environmental organizations filed their own lawsuit against the EPA on July 12, asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to immediately strike down or block the delay.

The EPA’s reversal on the ozone role is the latest setback for the Trump administration’s regulatory rollback agenda. On Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the EPA’s attempt to suspend methane restrictions for the sector, formally vacating the agency’s 90-day stay of key provisions of New Source Performance Standards.

“The EPA’s hasty retreat shows that public health and environmental organizations and 16 states across the country were right: the agency had no legal basis for delaying implementation of the 2015 smog standard,” Earthjustice attorney Seth Johnson said in response to the EPA’s sudden reversal.


In a statement issued Wednesday evening, Pruitt suggested his agency’s change of course on ozone standards was unrelated to the states’ lawsuit, but instead reinforced the Trump EPA’s commitment to working with states through the process of meeting the new ozone standards on time.

Under previous administrations, according to Pruitt, EPA would often fail to meet designation deadlines and then wait to be sued by activist groups and others, agreeing in a settlement to set schedules for designation. As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA more than a dozen times over its rules related to carbon emissions and other pollution controls. “We do not believe in regulation through litigation, and we take deadlines seriously. We also take the statute and the authority it gives us seriously,” he said.

Environmental and health organizations believe their lawsuits and the pressure applied by the state attorneys general played a key role in Pruitt’s decision to drop his one-year delay.


“Pruitt’s lawless attempt to delay stronger ozone-pollution protections would have put thousands of lives at risk. It’s disturbing how much pressure it took to get this commonsense step from the guy in charge of protecting the air we breathe,” Lori Ann Burd, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s environmental health program, said in a statement Wednesday. “We’ve got to keep fighting the Trump administration’s ideological crusade to pander to polluters and special interests.”

The Republican-led House of Representatives passed a bill last month designed to delay implementation of the Obama administration’s ground-level ozone rule. Environmental groups say the bill will weaken the Clean Air Act, including switching the EPA’s mandated review of ozone from every five years to every 10. The measure has not yet been brought to a vote in the Senate.

The EPA estimates that meeting the new smog standards will result in net annual public health benefits of up to $4.5 billion starting in 2025, not including California, while also preventing approximately 316 to 660 premature deaths, 230,000 asthma attacks in children, 630 asthma-related emergency room visits, and 340 cases of acute bronchitis in children.