Commentary

Clinton Regulators at the EPA are Running Amok

This article appeared in Copley News Service.

President Clinton likes to characterize his opponents as extremists, but the Environmental Protection Agency has long embodied the worst regulatory extremism found in the federal bureaucracy.

Indeed, after using tax money to lobby the public, administrator Carol Browner is preparing to impose Draconian new controls over ozone and particulate matter (PM) emissions. Although the rules formally remain under review, Browner has proudly proclaimed that she will not compromise, prompting the Washington Legal Foundation to file suit to disqualify her from further participation in the rule-making process.

Bill Clinton has long achieved political success by wrapping himself around popular issues, such as the environment. But the environmental debate has always been about means rather than ends. Not even the staunchest regulatory critic wants to breathe dirty air. The real issue is how to find the most cost-effective means to protect the environmental amenities that most Americans desire. It is a question of balance.

But the president does not desire balance. With the kind of timing for which the administration is famous, the EPA waited until after the election to propose cutting the current standard for ozone by one-third, from 120 to 80 parts per billion (averaged over eight hours). Since natural emissions from plants generate ozone levels of roughly 50 parts per billion, the EPA wants to essentially wipe out industrial ozone emissions. The agency also has proposed slashing PM emissions by three-fourths.

The initiative is pure politics. According to the chairman of the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), Dr. George Brown: there is “no known biological mechanism for the influence of fine particulate matter on human health.” As a result, he explains, the proposed agency rules are a matter of “policy, not strict science.”

If cutting pollutants was costless, the EPA rules would nevertheless represent a worthy goal. But eliminating successive amounts of emissions becomes ever more expensive. Even under today’s ozone standards, explain Kenneth Chilton and Stephen Huebner of the Center for the Study of American Business, Americans are paying between $4 and $28 for every additional $1 in health benefits.

The new rules would likely impose costs, estimated by the Council of Economic Advisers at upward of $60 billion annually, as much as 210 times the benefits. CASAC warned Browner that achieving her proposed standard “is no longer possible.”

Part of the EPA’s emotional sales pitch has been that the new regulations will protect asthmatics. But of roughly 14,700 annual asthmatic hospital admissions in the New York City region, 14,610 will occur even after implementing the new ozone controls. The proposed EPA rules are simply a solution in search of a problem.

The agency has concluded its public comment period, which, according to the Clean Air Act, is supposed to provide a “thorough review” of EPA proposals. However, the process is a sham. Browner announced in late February: “I will not be swayed.”

Naturally, she cited America’s kids: “if someone wants to accuse me of doing too much and acting too forcefully to protect the health and future of our children, then so be it.”

This is, of course, pure nonsense. In fact, even the EPA acknowledges that discharges of ozone and five other air pollutants have declined over the past 25 years by 29 percent, while America’s Gross Domestic Product has doubled.

Demanding unreasonable emission cuts is unhealthy as well as expensive, because wasting money on regulations of marginal benefit diverts resources from a variety of product and technological advances, like pharmaceuticals, that would yield far greater benefits. Indeed, many administration officials - in the Office of Science and Technology, Council of Economic Advisers, and Department of Transportation, for example - oppose the new rules.

However, Browner has launched a PR campaign to increase her regulatory power, speaking before groups ranging from San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club to the Children’s Environmental Health Network Research Conference to the JFK School of Government.

She also has diverted tax dollars to political groups, like the Environmental Council of the States, to promote the new proposals. In an memorandum dated Aug. 30, 1996, Ned Sullivan, co-chair of the Ozone Transport Assessment Group, observed that “The U.S. EPA has indicated the availability of $100,000 to support our activities at this stage,” which included hiring a communications coordinator, publishing a newsletter, running “public service” announcements, and undertaking a host of other communications activities.

In an administration utterly unconcerned with appearance, ethics or legality, the EPA’s misuse of taxpayer dollars to lobby for its proposed rules comes as no surprise.

Everyone likes the environment, and no one likes extremism, but extremists more interested in power than the environment are setting EPA policy. If they succeed in their current campaign, the American people will pay the price for years to come.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.