Going rogue: EPA out of control?

Dec 21, 2012

How big is too big? And when has a group gained too much power and at too much cost? For some, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) answered those questions a long time ago with its very existence.

At the end of last month, Sen. James Inhofe, R-OK, and Chicago-based nonprofit research organization The Heartland Institute circulated a citizen’s petition to “rein in the Environmental Protection Agency.” The petition was tendered to Congress by Inhofe with over 16,000 signatures.

The effort was intended to draw public and official attention to what many feel is a government agency gone rogue, both in budget and power. With the EPA having just released its five-year update to national air quality standards under the Clean Air Act (CAA) on Friday, Dec. 14, the issues of the agency’s reach and cost are on the minds of many.

The petition focused largely on the issue of manmade global warming and EPA’s involvement with that through things like the CAA. The issue of EPA’s purported toll on U.S. citizens and business owners was addressed, but it was a second-thought behind the issue of manmade global warming, which it called a “hoax” and a multi-decade scare campaign.

Regardless the focus of the petition’s creation, the petition had a call to action. After a laundry list of complaints against the agency, the petition ended with a call for drastic cuts to EPA’s size, power and cost.

Dr. Jay Lehr, the science director of The Heartland Institute, said EPA’s budget could safely be cut by 80 percent or more without endangering the environment or human health in any way. Most of what EPA does today could be done better by state government agencies, he said.

“Everything EPA does has a cost,” said Heartland Institute senior fellow James Taylor in the group’s statement regarding the petition. “We need to make sure that the costs are in line with the benefits.”

Lehr suggests the goal of the petition could be accomplished in a few ways. For instance, Congress could explicitly forbid EPA from regulating certain elements and could demand cost-benefit analysis be applied to all environmental regulations. Another option would simply be for the budget to be cut, as House Republicans tried to do June of this year, or changing how and where the agency can spend its money.

For Inhofe, trying to rein in EPA is nothing new. Inhofe is currently the ranking member of the Committee on Environmental and Public Works, which has jurisdiction over EPA, and served as its chairman from 2003-2007. He has repeatedly called out EPA for its spending practices and behavior over his involvement with the committee.

In mid-2009, Inhofe blasted EPA for what he called a false choice between a carbon tax and alterations to CAA, both of which he described as “a ticking time bomb” for the U.S. economy. Later, in 2011, he brought public and congressional attention to the “outrage of the year”—the sending of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to fund China’s EPA equivalent.

More recently, Inhofe went after EPA and President Obama specifically for what he described as illegal and dishonest behavior regarding planned EPA regulations for 2013.

“President Obama is refusing to comply with the law that requires him to publish forthcoming regulations because he doesn’t want the American public to know the terrible cost of the regulatory barrage he plans to unleash in a second term,” said Inhofe in late October.

“So instead of being honest with the American people about what’s in store if he wins, he’s been trying to hide the fact that he intends to move forward with a slew of rules that will destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs and dramatically raise the cost of energy on American families.”

According to a report the senator submitted to Congress following the failure of EPA to submit a similar report in early October, the 2013 changes to EPA regulations would supposedly cost 887,000 jobs per year. He paid particular attention to effects on those in coal and other traditional energy fields.

According to its own publicly available budget information, EPA’s budgets have been going down for the past three years, including the fiscal year (FY) 2013 budget. That isn’t really saying much considering FY 2010 saw the agency’s record-setting budget at $10.3 billion, a 35 percent increase from the FY 2009 budget.

The FY 2013 EPA budget of $8.34 billion is a 1.3 percent decrease from the FY 2012 budget and roughly in line with the FY 2004 budget. An earlier House Republican-proposed budget for EPA brought before the U.S. House Appropriations Committee back in June requested a $7 billion EPA budget for FY 2013 which would have been a 17 percent decrease from FY 2012.

Limiting the power and size of EPA is something countless farmers, ranchers and general land and business owners have been calling for for years. Of particular concern is another element of the CAA: the dust standard.

In response to a court order spurred by Inhofe’s report and an attending letter to the president, EPA finalized its five-year update to national air quality standards under CAA on Friday, Dec. 14. The update reduced the acceptable health standard for soot— classed as a fine particle pollutant—to 12 micrograms per cubic meter.

According to the EPA statement on the updated standards regarding soot, the revised standard could range from $4 billion to $9 billion per year in prevented health care issues related to that pollutant. It also estimates the new soot standard will incur implementation costs ranging from $53 million to $350 million. EPA noted 99 percent of counties across the U.S. will have no difficulty meeting the new soot standard by the compliance deadline of 2020 without any additional action. The seven counties it identified as not projected to meet the new soot standard in time without additional action were all in southern and central California.

The existing daily standards for course particles, which include dust standards for farms, were left unchanged in the update of CAA. This move, or lack thereof, was welcomed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).

“NCBA is pleased that EPA has decided to retain the current coarse [particulate matter] standard and did not make a bad situation worse,” said NCBA Deputy Environmental Counsel Ashley McDonald regarding the move. NCBA is continually dedicated to opposing EPA regulation of dust under CAA. Non-compliance fines can reach up to $37,500 per day for a CAA violation.

Based on EPA annual enforcement records, CAA non-compliance penalties for 2009 (most recent data available) amounted to $57.9 million. This figure combined major and nonmajor reportable sources of air pollutants at the state and federal level and represented “formal enforcement action.” An EPA press release regarding CAA enforcement in 2011 suggests the combined penalties assessed for CAA violations for that year was about $75 million, though no specific data was included.

In its announcement of the new fine particle standards, EPA noted it “cannot consider costs in selecting a standard under the Clean Air Act” but that its estimated implementation costs were the result of “the careful analysis undertaken for all significant regulations.” There was no mention of financial impact on businesses or landowners in the statement. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor