D. Dowd Muska


The EPA Doesn’t Know When to Quit

March 06, 2014

An air-quality regulator’s work is never done.

We need to do something about that.

It’s counterintuitive, but there’s a point at which America’s air does not need to get cleaner. In the last several decades, progress on pollution has been near-miraculous. Polls reveal that ignorance of the improvement is widespread, but the data are indisputable. As enumerated in the Pacific Research Institute’s Almanac of Environmental Trends, between 1980 and 2008, declines in ambient levels of the major pollutants were startling:

lead: -92 percent

carbon monoxide: -79 percent

sulfur dioxide: -71 percent

nitrogen dioxide: -46 percent

particulates: -31 percent

volatile organic compounds: -25 percent

fine particulates: -21 percent

As natural gas becomes the dominant fuel for electricity generation, telecommuting expands, drivers purchase hybrids and diesel-powered vehicles, the population ages, and the birthrate stays low, the trend toward bluer skies is guaranteed to continue. But try telling the EPA the good news. Neither it the nor the “environmental” lobby is interested.

Case in point: “Tier 3,” 1,069 pages of regulations the agency finalized earlier this month. The rules force refineries to lower the sulfur content in gasoline, and mandate the reduction of “both tailpipe and evaporative emissions from passenger cars, light-duty trucks, medium-duty passenger vehicles, and some heavy-duty vehicles.”

The EPA claims that Tier 3 is “among the most highly cost-effective air quality control measures available” -- that it will raise the price of gasoline by “less than a penny per gallon,” while yielding, by 2030, “annual monetized health benefits of … between $6.7 and $19 billion.” That’s boilerplate, garbage-in-garbage-out “analysis.” No one can accurately estimate what savings, if any, heart- and lung-condition sufferers will experience. As Joel M. Schwartz and Steven F. Hayward documented in their 2007 exposé Air Quality in America, observational epidemiology is compromised by publication bias and data mining. In other words, the “science” behind the linkages between air pollution and illnesses is weak.

Skeptical? Asthma, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, is on the rise, striking “one in 12 people … in 2009, compared with 1 in 14 … in 2001.” Yet the affliction’s greater incidence has occurred during an era of dramatic air-quality betterment. There’s much more to be learned, evidently, about the cause(s) of asthma.

Tier 3’s value is negligible -- perhaps nonexistent -- but its burden is real. At an EPA hearing held in Philadelphia last April, a representative of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers testified that the directive will impose “$10 billion in capital costs, and $2.4 billion per year in operating costs” on his industry and boost its production expenditures “by six to nine cents per gallon.” Removing more of gasoline’s piddling sulfur content, the trade association averred, “will cost refiners almost as much as the Tier 2 reduction 10 years ago, which removed 15 times more … than the proposed Tier 3 regulation would require.”

However absurd the agency’s demands, Schwartz and Hayward predict “no end in sight” to its regulatory ratcheting: “Because EPA sets national air pollution standards, [it] in effect gets to decide when its own job is finished. This conflict of interest goes a long way toward explaining the ubiquitous exaggeration of air pollution levels and risks by regulators and their allies.”

Air-quality extremism is federal policy, but it’s an ideology and a line of work, too. At the April hearing, Tier 3’s supporters outnumbered opponents 78 to 2. Present was the predictable mob of fact-challenged cranks -- obnoxious cyclists, advocates for “environmental justice,” Gaia-worshipping religious leftists, government-transit fanatics, sprawl paranoiacs. Big Green’s deep pockets were on hand, with heavyweights from the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council offering testimony. The American Lung Association dutifully provided scary stats. And rent-seekers didn’t miss the opportunity: the Manufacturers of Emission Controls Association (its industry “supports approximately 65,000 U.S. jobs”) called Tier 3 “both technically feasible and cost effective.”

Tapped-out motorists? None showed up.

Air pollution remains a nuisance in a handful of locales, notably Southern California, Texas’s booming cities, and the southern portion of the Northeast megalopolis. There’s probably a role for region-specific, low-hanging-fruit emission crackdowns in places where progress has been insufficient.

But there is no longer any need for the EPA’s one-size-fits-all rule-tightening. It’s outlived whatever usefulness it may have once had. Clean air is one of America’s few success stories in the postwar period. It doesn’t require the maintenance of an expensive, complex, and boundless regulatory regime.

In the war on air pollution, it’s time to declare victory, and breathe deeply.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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