EPA’s transparency problem

The Environmental Protection Agency is filled with highly educated scientists who are supposed to develop standards to protect our health and the environment that industries can actually meet. But new rules released by the EPA this week to effectively ban the construction of new coal plants highlight the agency’s deep-seeded transparency problems and questionable scientific methodology.

The proposed rules prohibit the construction of coal power plants that don’t meet new carbon dioxide standards. While the EPA claims it will still be possible to use coal by outfitting new plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology—a way of storing carbon dioxide underground so it doesn’t end up in the atmosphere—CCS hasn’t been demonstrated to work on a commercial scale.

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The EPA is charging ahead with these rules anyway, claiming that the agency has “peer-reviewed” evidence that CSS is possible. Unfortunately, the EPA has a funny way of defining peer-review.

New documents released from the U.S. Energy Department (DOE) show that the studies relied on by the EPA to prove that CSS is a viable option were performed by DOE, but only peer-reviewed by the EPA itself. Even more alarmingly, DOE couldn’t produce "a documented or publicly available description for this peer review process."

The EPA’s own Science Advisory Board (SAB) pointed out the peer review of CSS was “inadequate.” But instead of providing actual peer-reviewed evidence to support its regulations, EPA leaders merely argued that the SAB shouldn’t even review those CSS studies.

This troubling example of the EPA’s political bulldozing trumping actual scientific evidence has a huge impact on future energy costs. DOE projected that utilizing “commercially available CCS technologies would add around 80 percent to the cost of electricity for a new pulverized coal plant.” That’s an addition of $664 billion to our national electric bill.

Despite the tremendous impact EPA regulations have on our economy, “transparent” describes its operations like “efficient” does the healthcare.gov roll-out.

The more we learn about the agency’s operations, the scarier it gets. Former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson not only used a secret email account to conduct business, but created a whole fake person – “Richard Windsor” – through whom she funneled official correspondence. And in at least one instance, Jackson used her private email account to contact a lobbyist in violation of federal record keeping laws.

The EPA also missed a host of red flags, failing to figure out that one of its top climate scientists wasn’t really a CIA agent. For over 20 years, the EPA allowed that employee to take obscenely expensive trips and pull in a hefty paycheck without actually working—all on the taxpayers’ dime.

As if these management issues weren’t troubling enough, the EPA has allegedly colluded with environmental activists in a “sue and settle” legal strategy.

Sue and settle is a scheme where activists like the Sierra Club “sue” the EPA to force regulatory change. The “independent” agency then quickly proposes a settlement, the terms of which are negotiated behind closed doors and silenced through myriad non-disclosure agreements.

The EPA has used this strategy for years to pay millions of dollars in attorney fees to environmental activists and make sweeping regulatory changes. As Oklahoma’s Attorney General notes: “This appears to be a blatant strategy by the EPA to go around the process and bend the rules to create environmental regulations that have failed in Congress.”

One of the regulatory results of this scheme is the current Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS). In 2009, environmental activists sued the EPA to force the agency to limit mercury emissions. The resulting rule is projected to be the single costliest regulation in U.S. history. The EPA predicts compliance with this single rule will cost $10 billion per year, but the unintended consequences will cost far more.

In a current lawsuit challenging the MATS rule, opponents argue the rulemaking procedure was "substantively and procedurally flawed" and that the EPA "artificially skewed the data" by basing the proposed emissions limits on data from the best performing power plants instead of a representative sample. That’s like using a Ferrari as the baseline for minimum car engine performance standards.

This lack of transparency would be less troubling if the EPA had less power. But for an agency that costs the economy roughly $353 billion annually in compliance costs, we should demand greater accountability.

Swearingen is a senior research analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom.