For EPA's ozone standard, no cost is too high, no risk too low
© Greg Nash

The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) expanding regulatory dominion apparently knows no bounds. The science behind the EPA's current crusade, however, is a statistical house of cards. Although less stringent than anticipated, the new national ambient air quality standard (NAAQS) for ozone, set at 70 parts per billion (ppb), may be the straw that breaks the back of our struggling economy.

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The newly adopted standard, which has been pending since 2011 when the White House yanked back the rule at a cost of $90 billion annually, joins at least 20 other EPA rules of unprecedented scope, stringency and cost promulgated under the Obama administration. Long considered the most burdensome of the EPA's air quality programs, the new ozone standard will substantially add to the burgeoning costs already imposed by the EPA's torrent of rules. The need, however, for a tougher ozone standard is highly questionable.

The impact the agency has on the economy is no longer confined to pricey yet marginal costs of production. In previous administrations, the EPA's big rules carried costs in the several millions — now, it is in the tens of billions. The result of the agency's infeasible demands are business closures and job losses. No longer a meddler but a force, look to the EPA to understand why the economy has stalled at 2 percent growth and labor force participation rate approaches a record low not seen since 1977.

Perhaps worse than increasing the costs of doing business, the rising stack of EPA rules cumulatively smothers the fundamental dynamics of profitable enterprise. The EPA's regulatory regime makes businesses operate more like bureaucracies rather than efficient, creative and productive enterprises. Only massive bureaucracies like the EPA could design such labyrinthine, inefficient systems. Under the EPA's chain mail, business activity must defer to the compliance process. This typically requires spending as much or more time on paperwork than actual compliance with the rule.

The EPA's new ozone standard and the other new dictates come at an odd time in the history of environmental regulation. Although rarely acknowledged, air quality in the U.S. has dramatically improved over the last 30 years while the economy grew by 200 percent. Tailpipe emissions — a major source of ozone precursors — have been reduced by more than 95 percent from 1980 to 2013 while vehicles' miles traveled have increased by 178 percent. Pollutants have fallen across the board. A few of the many examples: Ambient levels of sulfur dioxide declined by 82 percent between 1980 and 2010. Emissions of lead have fallen by 96 percent. Benzene — a well-known carcinogen — has declined by 88 percent.

After air quality improvements of this magnitude, on what basis does the EPA justify the need for all these aggressive rules to protect us from "early death"? The EPA maintains the it reviewed 1,000 scientific studies in determining the ozone NAAQS. Yet the ozone standard ultimately relied on two weak, outdated epidemiological studies and an implausible methodology that imputes health risks at pollutant levels below natural background levels to zero! By use of this methodology, known as "no-safe-threshold" statistical analysis, the EPA extrapolated health risks four times higher than previously established.

Such no-safe-threshold methodology is also a way to mask the EPA's primary agenda to "end the era of fossil fuels." If the costs of the new ozone standard outweigh the estimated health benefits, the EPA simply conjures some coincidental benefits from reducing other pollutants that might occur while reducing ozone. Such "co-benefits" account for approximately 70 percent of the health benefits that the EPA claims for the new ozone standard.

The EPA maintains that the new ozone NAAQS will reduce the rising incidence of asthma, a widely accepted claim. Yet, even at face value, the EPA's claims about asthma are dubious. Over the last 30 years, while ozone and other pollutants were declining, incidence of asthma has risen 100 percent. So how will further reduction of ozone reduce asthma? Data from Texas hospitals show that asthma-related admissions are much higher in winter than in summer, when ozone levels are the highest. Consider exposure. Ozone levels decline by roughly 90 percent when indoors but the EPA assumes people are exposed to the highest monitored ozone level 24 hours per day — an implausible worst-case scenario.

Our country has demonstrated that robust economic growth and environmental quality are not only compatible, but interdependent. The prosperity achieved in this country has made possible a successful investment in improved air quality under the highly protective terms of the Clean Air Act. The EPA's manipulation of science, however, denies policymakers and the public the information needed to weigh the many trade-offs involved in societal decisions about unacceptable environmental risks.

Protection of air quality is an essential and ongoing responsibility, but the impacts of this EPA's expanding universe have become a substantial but unjustified drag on our economy. EPA action is now killing jobs. Economic impact does matter and it matters to health. Income and employment strongly correlate with human well-being and lifespan. 

Several years ago, a National Academy of Sciences review of the EPA's risk assessments concluded that the EPA's science "was on the rocks." Sound science and objective scientists abound. If the EPA was required to utilize more rigorous science, air quality would continue to improve, but at a far lower cost.

White is a distinguished senior fellow-in-residence and director of the Armstrong Center for Energy & the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. She is a former chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).