EPA Lost in the Ozone, As Usual

Just one day after the Supreme Court granted cert to review the EPA’s ridiculous mercury regulations, the EPA announced that it would lower the ozone standard to .06 parts per million, from the current .075 parts per million. This is the same regulation that President Obama cancelled in 2011 because, as the New York Times described it, “Mr. Obama said the regulation would impose too severe a burden on industry and local governments at a time of economic distress.”

This is another one of those issues that brings out the worst environmental hyperbole. Such as this in the New York Times story yesterday:

William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said, “Ozone is not only killing people, but causing tens of millions of people to get sick every day.”

Tens of millions every day! It’s a wonder there are any Americans left alive anywhere in the country, since ozone is overtaking tens of millions every day. Somehow I missed the rising epidemic of ozone-related illness, which somehow fails to stand out in the steadily improving health of the American people.

If the “tens of millions” hyperbole were an evenly remotely accurate rendering of the health risk from ozone, then why wouldn’t environmentalists demand that the ozone standard be set at zero? One reason is that the proposed standard is close to naturally occurring background ozone levels in some areas of the country (especially the southeast).

And if tens of millions are getting sick every day, then why is the EPA claiming such modest benefits from attaining the new standard? As the Times story continues:

The agency estimates that the new regulation would by 2025 prevent from 320,000 to 960,000 asthma attacks in children, and from 330,000 to 1 million missed school days. It also estimates that by 2025 the rule would prevent 750 to 4,300 premature deaths, 1,400 to 4,300 asthma-related emergency room visits and 65,000 to 180,000 missed workdays.

The EPA further claims that while the regulations might cost up to $15 billion a year, it would generate $19 billion to $38 billion in improved health benefits.

I haven’t yet read the EPA’s regulatory impact assessment on which these claims are based, but I suspect they rest on two of the weaknesses of the mercury rules: First, they are still using epidemiology from the early 1990s, which air pollution levels were significantly higher than they are today (and whose raw data the EPA continues to refuse to share with independent researchers for review and replication). Second, the EPA’s regulatory assessment for their mercury rules, which report similar health benefits as the ozone rule, admits that virtually none of the claimed benefit would come from reducing mercury emissions. (The basic reason for this can be seen in the chart at the bottom, which displays the CDC’s periodic screening of toxic substances in humans, which hasn’t found any women of childbearing age above the regulatory “reference dose”—which is set ten times higher than the “harmful level”—since the late 1990s.) The EPA hangs the entire benefit on the “co-benefit” of reducing fine particulate pollution, which shutting down a lot of coal plants with mercury regulations will do. But we already have a regulatory regime for reducing particulates, which has seen significant reductions over the last 15 years (down 27 percent between 1999 and 2010), such that any claims of health benefits on current particulate levels are obsolete.

It is one of the more breathtaking examples of bureaucratic arrogance on the scene today. I haven’t reviewed the legal briefs and appellate decisions leading up to the Supreme Court review of the mercury rules, but usually regulatory agencies enjoy a lot of deference in appeals, which is one reason they continually put out regulations that fail rigorous analysis. Usually the courts will only nullify a regulation if it is clearly “arbitrary and capricious.” But perhaps the EPA has finally gone to the point where the Supreme Court will draw some new lines.

Mercury Blood Lead Level in Women 16 - 49

Mercury Blood Lead Level in Women 16 – 49

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