EPA's ozone decision is about politics, and that's OK
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Earlier this week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its much-awaited ozone standard. The EPA regulation lowered the standard to 70 parts per billion (ppb) of ozone. The Obama administration had considered a change in 2011, but postponed it in part due to strong industry opposition and the approach of the president's reelection.


The reaction to last week's EPA standard was predictable. Environmentalists screamed that the Obama administration ignored the science behind ozone pollution and should have set the standard at 65 parts per billion or lower. Industry argued the opposite, saying that the science demonstrated that there should be no change to the standard, and that the costs would "make it harder for the economy to expand," as noted in The Wall Street Journal.

But focusing the debate on the science or the economics behind the EPA decision is misguided. Susan Dudley, a former administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, points out that "though scientific information is essential for understanding matters of fact, it can't be the sole basis for making policy decisions about what should be." Similarly, economics can help predict the consequences of a policy but not whether you should pursue the policy. In this case, the economic benefits of the standard as calculated by the EPA (though disputed by others) outweigh the costs. The economic benefits, again as calculated by EPA, of a 65 ppb standard would be even greater.

We desperately want to believe that public policy decisions, especially those in complex areas such as environmental protection, are made on the basis of science or economics. What's more, politicians are desperate to convince us that their decisions are grounded in these same disciplines in order to inoculate themselves from criticism. Finally, the interest groups on either side of an issue have a clear incentive to base their criticisms of the agency not on their self-interest, but rather on some objective criteria that suggests the agency made the wrong decision.

However, the same law that gives the EPA the ability to set an ozone standard gives the agency leeway to decide how to set it. It tells the EPA to "protect public health" with an "adequate margin of safety." Those words are deliberately vague. Standards of either 70 or 65 parts per billion could both be defended as protecting public health with an adequate margin of safety. Meanwhile, agencies are supposed to do economic analysis and show that the costs are "justified by the benefits." Standards of 70 or 65 ppb (and perhaps even the existing standard of 75 ppb) would meet this standard. So the EPA has to make a choice.

How does it choose? It makes a political decision. Politics is a dirty word when making decisions on complex policy issues. The EPA (under the Obama administration as well as all of its predecessors, both Democratic and Republican) does not want to admit that it makes political decisions. That would give validity to the critics who cite the insufficient science or economics behind the standard as evidence that the agency caved to interest groups on the other side of the issue. But in deciding between multiple options that can be justified by economics and science, agencies and the presidents they work for weigh the reactions of the groups that care about their policies. In other words, they make political decisions.

But are political decisions on complex issues bad things? Many of those who criticize regulations do so because they are issued by agencies whose leaders do not face the public in an election. If, despite this lack of an electoral connection, politics does influence those decisions, we should be relieved, not upset. In any case, we can’t have it both ways. We can't criticize the executive branch for being a bunch of unelected bureaucrats, and then also criticize them for making decisions influenced by politics. If they have to err one way or the other, perhaps we should be happy that it is in the direction of democratic accountability.

Shapiro is an associate professor and director of the Public Policy Program at Rutgers University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.