The Public Policy

EPA Sniffs Smog

The latest example of Obama environmentalism run amok -- but who needs economic recovery anyway?

By and 1.14.10

On Thursday, January 7, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to tighten regulations on ground-level ozone (smog) beyond the already strict levels set by the Bush administration in March 2008. This misguided proposal is yet another example of environmentalism run amok. If implemented, it will hamper America's economic recovery by increasing energy costs for businesses, without creating any offsetting health benefits. 

The EPA proposes setting the primary standard of smog between 0.060 and 0.070 parts per million (ppm), below the current level of 0.075 ppm. This would force thousands of American power plants to install expensive smog-reducing equipment, such as scrubbers. The agency optimistically estimates that the plan will cost between $19 billion and $90 billion -- costs that will be passed on to American businesses and consumers, and result in even more job losses. Hardly the tonic our flagging economy needs. 

The EPA and the American Lung Association both assert that smog at current levels causes heart and lung problems, indirectly claims thousands of lives, and costs the country billions in health care costs. According to EPA chief Lisa P. Jackson, "Smog in the air we breathe poses a very serious health threat, especially to children." So isn't the plan worth implementing, for the children?

The problem is that even the most marginal improvements in air quality are not free. They impose huge costs, often without any mitigating benefit. Resources are scarce, and the resources devoted to making insignificant improvements in air quality would be better spent on reducing the national debt, or leaving taxpayers with more money to spend on health care or other needs. Furthermore, the low-hanging fruit has already been plucked. Reducing smog to the levels demanded is far more expensive than smog reduction has been to date.

Moreover, levels of air pollution in America have been declining rapidly since the 1950s despite increases in energy consumption and automobile use. According to air quality expert Joel Schwartz, "Even the worst areas have far better air quality than was typical of American cities during the 1950s, '60s, or '70s." Further improvements in air quality are bound to happen anyhow, as technology develops and as vehicles and power plants become cleaner.

Moreover, the evidence used by the EPA to justify tightening regulations is dubious. The vast majority of the studies the agency relies on have been shown to be methodologically flawed. Their results are belied by the fact that incidence of asthma has nearly doubled in America this past quarter century; even as air pollution of all kinds has dropped. Despite all these studies, there is no new scientific evidence put forward by EPA to justify this new rule. Nor is there any evidence that the current laws are not working.

Why, then, has the EPA proposed this rule? Because the Obama administration wants to increase the cost of energy. The President's flagship global warming policy, "cap and trade," remains stalled in the Senate, with Senators of both parties all too aware of the damage it will do to their states. The President, however, promised in his election campaign that energy rates would "necessarily skyrocket," and the smog rule is another way to achieve that end without having to bother with the messy business of gaining Congressional approval.

As it stands, the latest regulation proposed by the EPA is typical of the Obama administration: a false threat is raised; the Bush administration is accused of failing to address it; and action is taken through the bureaucracy in order to circumvent Congress. Americans should not be fooled. Far from hitting "big business," the EPA's new proposed smog standards amount to yet another indirect tax on consumers, at all income levels.

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About the Author

Iain Murray is Vice-President for Strategy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

About the Author

Roger Abbott is a research associate at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.