Rescuing the EPA

Dec. 19, 2016
The US Environmental Protection Agency needs change, not death. It has an important mission. Under President Barack Obama, however, the EPA treated the role as transcendent.

The US Environmental Protection Agency needs change, not death. It has an important mission. Under President Barack Obama, however, the EPA treated the role as transcendent. Its imperiousness appealed to myopic environmentalists, many of which became staff members. But for Americans with broader interests, including economic health, constitutional governance, and scientific integrity, EPA went too far. With the oil and gas industry, it was sometimes hostile and usually obstructionist.

Anyone revolted by extremism but concerned about environmental regulation therefore should welcome the nomination of Scott Pruitt to be EPA administrator. As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt has persistently challenged EPA's constitutional adventurism. EPA needs the legal discipline he'd impose.

A parting shot

For 8 years, the agency has arrogated authority, distorted science, and resorted to propaganda typical of authoritarian regimes. A fresh example is a parting shot at the oil and gas industry: EPA's Dec. 13 release of a report about the effects on drinking water of hydraulic fracturing. The report, EPA declared, "provides scientific evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources in the United States under some circumstances." That statement will capture headlines and inflame resistance to an important well-completion technique. Less noticed will be EPA's admission that the report "was not designed to be a list of documented impacts." It wasn't designed that way because no such "impacts" have been documented.

And the conditions EPA discovered under which hydraulic fracturing might imperil drinking water speak to the sophistication of its science. Here's one: "Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids directly into groundwater resources." Yes, that would impact water. But who would do it?

Whether Pruitt or someone else, the next administrator must restore the agency's credibility. A place to start is the "social cost of carbon," a pliable formulation EPA uses to inflate benefits and deflate costs of initiatives addressing climate change. Related to that tool of deception is EPA's regular accounting for "cobenefits," such as cuts in emissions of a pollutant thought to result from a measure targeting something different, to enrich the allure of its proposals. And the agency regularly touts numbers of "premature deaths" its rules and regulations supposedly prevent without defining the phrase or explaining how something so nebulous can be counted.

EPA's credibility would further improve with distance from environmental advocacy groups. "The Obama administration has installed an audacious green-revolving door at EPA, which has become a valuable asset for the environmental movement and its wealthy donors," declared a 2014 report by minority staff of the Senate Committee on Energy and the Environment. "...Former activists have held or are currently holding senior positions throughout the agency."

The transplants weren't simply supplying the expertise many no doubt possessed. They were enlisting pressure-group colleagues to write policy proposals, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council's original blueprint for the Clean Power Plan. According to the staff report, some of them used their positions to channel federal grant money to former employers. And they've been shown elsewhere to have colluded in a scheme called "sue and settle," which enabled EPA to implement regulations while escaping public scrutiny.

Residual pollution

The new administrator also must acknowledge that some pollution occurs naturally, that some level of pollution is acceptable, and that the government need not-indeed, should not-try to expunge every pollutant. Pollution remaining after earlier clean-up programs can be the hardest and costliest to remove and-thanks to reduced concentrations-the least harmful. EPA fervently targets residual pollution anyway. Its latest rule on ground-level ozone, the costs of which overwhelm the marginal environmental gains, provides an example sure to become painful.

EPA insists laws mandate this zealotry. If that's so, if Congress truly grants a single agency as much control as the Obama administration's EPA has tried to exert over so much of American life, laws need to change. The new EPA administrator should lead the effort. Sound environmental regulation seldom emerges from shady fringes of law and science.