"These emission reductions will prevent 8,300 premature deaths, more than 9,500 hospitalizations, and 1.5 million work days lost."

"These emission reductions will prevent 8,300 premature deaths, more than 9,500 hospitalizations, and 1.5 million work days lost."

Who wouldn't support something like that?

This highly quantitative promise of health benefits came Dec. 21 from the US Environmental Protection Agency upon release of long-anticipated rules slashing the concentration of sulfur in diesel fuel.

Three observations are in order:

  • The statement about premature deaths and whatnot is salesmanship, not science.
  • Equivalent environmental-and, presumably, health--benefit was available at far less cost.
  • The oil and gas industry will endure further regulatory assault before Bill Clinton leaves the White House.

How does someone measure premature death, anyway? How can EPA know how many hospitalizations and lost work days will be prevented by a reduction in the sulfur content of highway diesel fuel to 15 ppm from 500 ppm?

The fact is, it can't know these things with as much precision as its numbers imply. The agency doesn't even bother to define the period over which these wondrous savings will occur.

The numbers, in other words, are pure baloney. As salesmanship, however, they work. How, indeed, can anyone fault a program that promises with such confidence to prevent so much premature death, whatever that means?

In terms of air quality, EPA could have accomplished comparable air-quality results with a more-flexible program targeting a 50 ppm sulfur floor, which would have put far less financial burden on refiners. In fact, industry groups proposed a program like that a year ago.

But EPA opted to reduce sulfur in highway diesel by 97% instead of 90%, the principal difference being not the air-quality consequence but the pain inflicted on refiners. The message is clear. It also reeks of irresponsibility at a time when the US refining industry is straining to the limits of its capacity to meet demand for oil products.

Responsibility, however, doesn't enter the picture at EPA during Clinton's last few weeks as president. This is grandstanding to environmentalists, many of which like nothing more than watching refiners bleed cash, and banking the favor for future political campaigns.

So it won't stop at sulfur in diesel fuel. The Clinton gang has nothing to lose now from smash-mouth environmental politicking. EPA is on a roll. And it's not alone.

The exploration and production part of the oil and gas business now must worry about access to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain, considered the best onshore prospect in the US. Environmental groups want Clinton to designate it a national monument. Clinton says the designation might not immunize the area against congressional approval of oil and gas leasing.

For the environmental crowd, however, making ANWR a national monument, however illogical, would take some sting out of Vice-Pres. Al Gore's narrow defeat in the presidential election. So until Clinton leaves office, ANWR is as much in jeopardy as the last meaningless dregs of sulfur in diesel fuel.

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