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Obama withdraws request for tougher smog standards

The ozone hole photographed by satellite on October 1, 2010. NASA

Updated at 12:38 p.m. ET with a statement from the American Lung Association

Listening to the protests of Republicans and business leaders, President Obama today overruled Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson and asked her agency to withdraw its proposal for tougher ozone standards.

In a statement, the president said he decided to ask Jackson to withdraw the request after considering "the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover."

The step back from the stricter air quality standard comes as Republicans continue to hammer the president over his regulatory agenda, arguing such regulations hinder job growth. The Labor Department released a dismal jobs report today, showing no job growth in August, that adds fuel to the GOP line of attack.

In a conference call with reporters today, a senior administration official said today's decision "has nothing to do with politics."

The president said in his statement that his commitment to protecting public health and the environment is unwavering.

"I will continue to stand with the hardworking men and women at the EPA as they strive every day to hold polluters accountable and protect our families from harmful pollution," he said. "And my administration will continue to vigorously oppose efforts to weaken EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act or dismantle the progress we have made."

In what appeared to be a coincidental announcement, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality has issued an ozone alert for the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metropolitan areas Friday because conditions are favorable for an unhealthy buildup of ozone.

Last year, the EPA said it would revisit the ozone standard because some said the Bush administration lowered the standard to a level that would pose a risk to human health. Facing political pressure on both sides of the issue -- with business organizations on one side and groups like Environmental Defense Fund and the American Lung Association on the other side -- the Obama administration missed several deadlines to change the standard.

In a letter to President Obama last month that called into question the cost of new regulations, House Speaker John Boehner said the new ozone standard would cost the economy as much as $90 billion per year. Boehner spokesman Michael Steel called today's decision a "good first step."

"But it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to stopping Washington Democrats' agenda of tax hikes, more government 'stimulus' spending, and increased regulations - which are all making it harder to create more American jobs," Steel added.

Jack Gerard, head of the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil industry in Washington, hailed the decision as "good news for the economy and Americans looking for work."

Health and environmental groups, meanwhile, say the proposed regulation change would have improved the nation's communities and saved billions of dollars in health costs.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, issued a statement condemning Mr. Obama's decision "to delay critical, long-overdue protections from smog, an acidic air pollutant that when inhaled is like getting a sunburn on your lungs."

"By putting the interest of coal and oil polluters first, the White House seems to be saying that 'clean air will have to wait,'" Brune added. "The Sierra Club and the millions of Americans who have suffered through orange and red-alert air quality days this record-breaking summer will continue to push the Obama Administration to improve this protection in order to save lives and clean up our air."

The American Lung Association said today it intends to revive its court challenge against the current ozone standards, arguing they fail to protect public health.

"For two years the Administration dragged its feet by delaying its decision, unnecessarily putting lives at risk. Its final decision not to enact a more protective ozone health standard is jeopardizing the health of millions of Americans, which is inexcusable," Charles Connor, president and CEO of the ALA, said in a statement.

In his statement today, Mr. Obama pointed out that scientists are already reviewing their assessments of ozone requirements, which were last updated in 2006, and that ozone standards will have to be reconsidered in 2013. "Ultimately, I did not support asking state and local governments to begin implementing a new standard that will soon be reconsidered," the president said.