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Did Obama abandon his smog plan because of elections?

The action drew immediate and uncharacteristic plaudits from industry groups — who say the regulation would stifle job growth — and howls from environmentalists.

Following a dismal jobs report Friday, President Obama announced that his administration would not implement a new clean-air standard to reduce smog.

The move to halt the new air standard marks a sharp departure from the president’s agenda of tightening national air-quality standards.

Friday’s action drew immediate and uncharacteristic plaudits from industry groups — who say the regulation would stifle job growth — and howls from environmentalists.

“We’re deeply disappointed that the administration has chosen to leave in place outdated standards that lag far behind what scientists have unanimously recommended,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, in a statement. “This unfortunate decision puts millions of Americans, particularly children, at risk from industrial pollution.”

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Setting a new National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone, or smog, as required under the Clean Air Act, was supposed to happen this fall. The move was the Obama administration’s response to standards first proposed under the Bush administration in 2006.

But the White House on Friday pulled in the reins on Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, who had planned to unveil the new standards this fall.

“I have continued to underscore the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover,” Obama said in prepared statement. “With that in mind, and after careful consideration, I have requested that Administrator Jackson withdraw the draft Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards at this time.”

Industry groups were heartened by the move. The National Association of Manufacturers, the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce applauded the president’s decision and called for elimination of more pollution regulations now in the pipeline.

“This an enormous victory for America’s job creators, the right decision by the president, and one that will help reduce the uncertainty facing businesses,” said U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue in a statement Friday. “It’s also a big first step in what needs to be a broader regulatory reform effort.”

In a conference call with reporters Friday, White House officials blamed the move on awkward timing. Implementing a rule this year based on what it called “outdated science” made no sense. Work is already under way to update a 2006 review of the science that will result in the reconsideration of the ozone standard in 2013, the officials said.

Environmentalists say the move and timing look like capitulation based on political weakness, designed to undercut the arguments of conservatives in an election year — at the expense of the environment and public health.

“Its just nonsensical spin,” says Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington environmental advocacy group. “It’s literally the same argument that polluters were arguing — put off new regulations to clean up the air until after the next elections.”

Denying the White House was caving to critics, administration officials noted major initiatives and environmental gains from tougher enforcement over the past two years, including a proposal to reduce mercury and other toxic air pollutants from outdated power plants and the doubling of fuel efficiency of cars and trucks light trucks.

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“There should be no question this administration is committed to protecting public health and the environment,” a White House official told reporters. “We continue to vigorously oppose efforts to weaken EPA authority or dismantle significant and historic progress we’ve made to date.”

But even Obama’s supporters in Congress expressed dismay over the moves. Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, an advocate of environmental regulation, pronounced the move “disappointing.” He fears it could lead to other rollbacks on water and air quality.

And Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said that “protecting air quality based on the science leads to more job growth because it brings so many positive health benefits to our workers.”

Although disappointed with the decision to delay action, she said she was “heartened by the President’s commitment to vigorously oppose any efforts to dismantle the Clean Air Act and the progress that we have made.”

Mark Clayton writes for the Christian Science Monitor.