GOP senators: EPA 'deliberately' inflating rule's benefits

A group of Republican senators suggest the Obama administration may be purposefully overstating the benefits of new environmental rules by more than $2.2 billion to make them seem more valuable.

The Environmental Protection Agency is undergoing an “apparent attempt to deliberately inflate benefits calculations in order to justify the high cost of a rule,” the senators wrote in a letter to the head of EPA's water office on Monday.

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Sens. David Vitter (R-La.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and John Boozman (R-Ark.) signed the letter. All are members of the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

The EPA, they charge, is trying to “exaggerate benefits” of a potential new rule to prevent fish, shellfish and other organisms from being trapped in the cooling structures of power plants and manufacturing sites.

They said the EPA's attempts to examine the indirect benefits of the new regulation and rely on a survey technique are problematic and should not be used as the basis for a new rule.

The EPA first proposed the regulation in 2011.

At the time, it said that “its valuation of the benefits is not yet complete,” since it had not accounted for other benefits to the rule such as “the value one places on knowing that an aquatic ecosystem is healthy” or “secondary and tertiary ecosystem impacts.” Those are known as “non-use” benefits. 

More than a year after that initial proposal, the agency published the results of a survey to determine the cost the public was willing to pay, including non-use benefits. 

That survey greatly increased the estimated benefits of the rule, from $16.3 million per year before it was conducted to $2.275 billion after, according to the preferred option in an analysis prepared for energy company associations. 

The lawmakers called the survey “one of the most controversial methods” for determining benefits, since it is based on hypothetical choices.

“EPA has never attempted to justify an entire regulation primarily on non-use benefits,” the senators wrote opposing the estimate. “Doing so now would set a dangerous precedent that would interject arbitrariness and unpredictability in the regulatory process and allow regulators to justify actions based on public opinion surveys rather than sound science.”

The EPA is required by a court settlement to finalize the rule by Nov. 4.