The Obama administration, which has faced a relentless assault from Republicans on its environmental agenda, has recently slowed several of its trademark regulatory efforts, delaying key decisions until after the November election.
In its latest election-year delay of regulations, the Obama administration said Tuesday it will defer until next year acting on a Clean Water Act rule that could require expensive new construction at power plants to lower fish deaths.
The postponement by the Environmental Protection Agency was not unexpected, with the agency having only recently completed a public comment period on its latest data.
Still, the move to add another 11 months to the rulemaking marks the latest step by the administration to delay potentially controversial environmental rules until after the November election.
Environmentalists expressed immediate frustration, while Republicans sought to make immediate political hay from the delay, suggesting President Barack Obama was delaying unpopular actions to help his re-election chances.
EPA last week said it would review a portion of its power plant mercury and air toxics rule, with a final decision delayed until next year.
Separately, a top official said the compliance deadline for its Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will likely be pushed back even if the rule is upheld in a federal appeals court decision expected this week.
Those delays follow recent decisions not to lower minimum thresholds under its greenhouse gas regulations, and to delay until 2015 a requirement that natural gas drillers capture escaping air emissions from hydraulic fracturing operations.
EPA also tried to delay issuing a proposal to clamp down on airborne soot pollution but was forced to act last month by a court order.
Last year the White House ordered EPA to wait until next year to consider lowering ozone limits in counties, as well, a move that avoided a potential cavalcade of criticism from state and local officials.
EPA on Tuesday said the delay on the utility cooling rule was needed to review comments on new proposals intended to make a final rule more flexible. The rule, proposed last year, could force utilities to add costly new cooling towers or take other steps to prevent the deaths of fish and other aquatic life at water intakes.
"The extension provides the agency ample time to complete its analysis of public comments, data and options prior to finalizing the rule, which EPA hopes to do as expeditiously as possible," said EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson.
The agency quietly publicized the news that it would not meet this coming Friday's deadline on its Internet site without issuing a formal announcement, following an agreement reached last week with the Riverkeeper environmental group. They set a June 27, 2013 deadline.
EPA entered into a settlement agreement with Riverkeeper in November, 2010 on suits it filed to force the agency to enforce the law's protections for fish and other water life.
Reed Super, the lead attorney for the group and others involved in the suit, said they were disappointed in the delay and that it would likely be the final one the plaintiffs would accept.
"I will say this is the last extension we're going to give them," he said. He stressed that EPA was failing to act in defense of fish, shellfish and aquatic mammals.
Super added, however, that the groups had been pressing EPA in court for decades to set a national standard, and that another 11 months was acceptable if a strong rule emerges. "If we get a better rule going forward, that would be worth it, I guess," he said.
Riverkeeper has long argued that the Entergy-owned Indian Point nuclear plant on the Hudson River in New York has been illegally killing large amounts of fish. The company and Riverkeeper took the dispute to the Supreme Court, which issued a decision in 2009 that cleared a dispute over the use of cost-benefit analyses in writing a fish intake rule.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said in a statement that the delay was a tacit admission by President Barack Obama that his environmental agenda threatened to hurt his re-election chances.
"President Obama's decision to punt on yet another job-killing EPA regulation before the election just goes to show how unpopular his agenda is with the public," Inhofe said.
The Environmental Protection Agency is a Cabinet-level federal agency responsible for governing environmental policy and reducing pollution.
Riverkeeper is a New York-based environmental group dedicated to clean waterways that brought initial legal action to force the EPA to act on pollution from power plant cooling towers.
Indian Point is a New York-based nuclear power plant that has come under increasing scrutiny from environmentalists, federal and state regulators as its infrastructure ages.