USEPA Administrator Lisa Jackson delivered a speech on Tuesday, marking the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Air Act. It was a remarkably honest bit of oratory in which the administrator quite accurately recounted how much progress we have made in cleaning up the air we breathe. Yet, Jackson’s honesty was also disturbing, as she outlined an ominous future featuring an ever more aggressive and demanding EPA that sees little need to worry about the concerns of industry.
The administrator noted that “as air pollution has dropped over the last 40 years, our national GDP has risen by 207 per cent.” When anyone involved in the environmental industry recognizes that we have in fact made progress in the field, it’s a rare occasion indeed. The fact is that air quality has improved enormously in the United States over the past four decades, so it would have been better if Jackson could have pointed the stunning magnitude of our success. Still, the fact that Jackson acknowledged progress at all stands among from the litany of “sky is falling” homilies that environmental advocates deliver on an almost daily basis. Unfortunately, that was the highpoint of the administrator’s speech. After that grudging admission, it was downhill from there.
For most of us on the industrial side, the remarkable thing about America’s environmental record is that we have managed to grow the GDP by 207 per cent over the last forty years, in spite of the Clean Air Act, a myriad of other environmental regulations and growing, ever more onerous sets of requirements. To Lisa Jackson however, that economic growth occurred because of environmental regulation. Claiming that the Clean Air Act has saved America trillions of dollars, Jackson called the Clean Air Act “one of the most cost-effective things that the American people have done for themselves over the last half century” and asserted that it is “one of the most economically successful programs in American history.”
The EPA creates enormous, theoretical cost-benefits by claiming that its rules result in less lost days of work and therefore greater productivity, along with reduced healthcare expenses. There is no auditing body similar to the Congressional Budget Office to challenge such spurious claims. As a result, the Agency says that virtually every environmental regulation it proposes won’t cost a dime, but will rather save untold amounts of money. Such purported “savings” have been double, triple and quadruple counted, even as health care costs continue to skyrocket and the percentage of worker sick days has hardly changed. If Jackson’s claims were true, if onerous environmental regulations actually created wealth instead of sapping it, there could never have been a recession and our healthcare system would have fallen into disuse for a lack of patients.
American industry has adapted to the massive regulatory structure that grew out of the Clean Air Act, but no one should be so foolish as to believe that it, along with all of the rest of us, has not paid an enormous price. For example, no oil refinery has been built on United States soil since 1975 as a direct result of the regulatory structure. Rules that were intended to incentivize the best in new technologies have done quite the opposite, thanks to self-serving manipulation by environmental groups and the EPA’s acquiescence. Refiners and other industry segments learned that it made more sense to keep old plants limping along because that was a lot easier than trying to build cleaner modern facilities in the teeth of environmental group and Agency opposition. Spiraling environmental and labor costs drove large portions of some industrial sectors, like iron and steel production and the printing industry, overseas and across the border.
Even when the monetary costs associated with complying with EPA regulations have been reasonable, the regulatory process has grown so complicated and onerous that some companies pull up shop just to avoid the unending hassle of dealing with the army of pencil-pushing crusaders who make up so much of the Agency. It can take months, or years, to win EPA approval for the most innocuous of projects. The Agency effectively discourages innovation through an institutional, instinctive mistrust of any technology it hasn’t seen before. Plants who meet air pollution limits are routinely fined for not filing some obscure form correctly or on time. As I have told many a client during my years as an environmental consultant to industry: the EPA is about paperwork, not pollution.
Lisa Jackson may not believe that America has paid a hefty price for the environmental progress she admits we have made, but she’d be hard pressed to find people in the regulated community who would agree with her assessment. Not that this administrator cares about industry’s opinions. In her speech Jackson sneered at the concerns that industry has expressed over the past forty years, dismissing such protests as lobbyist-inspired propaganda. There’s a grain of truth there, but only a grain. Industry lobbyists have surely overstated their cases over the years, but that doesn’t mean that industry didn’t have, or doesn’t have, legitimate concerns. Moreover, on the other side environmental lobbyists employ overblown propaganda that would make the most jaded Madison Avenue ad agency blush. But for Jackson and the many other radical environmentalists like her, the claims of the tree-hugging crowd are always to be believed, while industry’s arguments are dismissed out of hand.
Having set forth the case that everything the EPA does always turns a profit and that anyone who disagrees with that assessment should be dismissed as a dirty, rotten capitalist, Jackson proceeded to up the ante. Clearly stung by criticism of the incredibly onerous new set of regulations that her agency has proposed and promulgated in the last year and a half, the administrator proclaimed that these new rules would usher in a new era of green prosperity in America. The facts are quite different. Jackson has promulgated air quality standards that will make it impossible to build a new coal-fired power plant of any consequence in America, thus effectively writing off our largest pool of cheap domestic energy. Her EPA has circumvented the provisions of the Clean Air Act so it can force power plants to apply for permits to emit greenhouse gases and then demanded that the states join the feds in the circumvention. Jackson claims, over and over again, that the EPA is following the best scientific advice available, but the opposite is true. The academics that are creating new standards for industry – standards that Jackson clearly adores – offer the worst kind of scientific advice available: advice of the sort that only pie-in-the-sky academics with no real-world experience could produce. We’ve paid a hefty price for all of the environmental progress we’ve made, but that progress has at least represented a compromise forged among all interested parties. Under Lisa Jackson, the EPA will exact the kind of costs for further, unneeded progress that will make the prices we paid before pale by comparison, because she has effectively handed the keys of the Agency to the most radical of the environmentalist advocates.
Some conservatives believe that we should abolish the EPA. Even though I’ve been wrestling with the Agency for over 25 years, I don’t happen to agree. We need some agency to oversee environmental protection. The problem isn’t that the EPA exists, it’s that it’s drunk with power and so convinced of the nobility of its mission that it can rationalize every excess. We don’t need to eliminate the EPA in other words, but we do need to reign it in. Lisa Jackson’s combination of belligerence and naiveté is all the proof one should need of just how out of control this Agency has become.