Regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency got the message early.
A month before President Obama promised to review all government regulations to remove unnecessary burdens on small business, EPA lawyers asked a federal court for a 16-month delay in implementing a new rule that would limit toxic air pollution from industrial boilers. The rule had been more than a decade in the making, and was issued last June only after the agency had been forced to act by the courts.
The EPA’s initial proposal would have cost companies an estimated $9.5 billion to bring more than 2,000 heat and steam plants across the U.S. into compliance, according to the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), headed by regulation czar and Obama confidante Cass Sunstein.
However, the OIRA analysis also showed that reduced particulate matter, carbon monoxide, chlorine, mercury and dioxin emissions from the rule would prevent about 1,900 to 4,800 premature deaths, 1,300 cases of chronic bronchitis, 3,000 nonfatal heart attacks, 3,200 hospital and emergency room visits and 250,000 lost work days each year. The total health benefits, calculated at $17 billion to $41 billion a year, far outweighed the cost of the proposal, according to OIRA.
Environmentalists feared the EPA’s request was a harbinger of a new administration approach to regulation now that Republicans are in control of the House and the president is focused on creating jobs. “The EPA was running scared because the White House wouldn’t back them,” fumed Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. “After the election things changed.”
The January 18 executive order and memorandum outlining the administration’s new regulatory policy seemed to confirm that analysis. Again in his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, the president pledged to weed out unnecessary and duplicative rules and promised to halt any rules that stood in the way of small business’ ability to create jobs.
“When we find rules that put an unnecessary burden on businesses, we will fix them,” Obama said. “But I will not hesitate to create or enforce common-sense safeguards to protect the American people.”
The administration has moved quickly to cozy up to business. In the past week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration withdrew two rules that had angered business lobbyists, one a proposed rule that would reduce noise pollution in workplaces and the other that would make companies keep records on musculoskeletal injuries in the workplace.”Hearing loss caused by excessive noise levels remains a serious occupational health problem in this country,” said OSHA chief David Michaels, whose agency often bears the brunt of small business antagonism toward government regulation.
During the Bush administration, Michaels, then a professor at George Washington University, frequently criticised OSHA and other regulatory agencies for failing to follow science when setting rules for protecting workers and public health. “It is clear from the concerns raised about this proposal that addressing this problem requires much more public outreach and many more resources than we had originally anticipated,” he said as he withdrew the noise rule.
Regulation has always been at the heart of corporate and Republican concerns about the direction the federal government takes under Democratic control. Long before there was a “job-killing” health care bill, there was the job-killing EPA, the job-killing Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the job-killing Mine Safety and Health Administration and any number of agencies that stand accused of undermining economic growth when they enforce laws designed to protect America’s air and water, food and drugs, and working and housing conditions.
Industry lobbyists invariably play the job-killing theme in public when lobbying against proposed rules, even as they use scientific arguments, which they must, while making their case before regulatory agencies. But that gets industry only so far. Science and economic analysis usually support tighter rules as more becomes known about the health effects of hazards and the cost of pollution-control technology drops.
For instance, the EPA’s clean air scientific advisory committee, a panel of outside experts that evaluates scientific evidence presented by stakeholders, had endorsed the tougher standards contained in the EPA’s original rule on industrial boilers.
The Council of Industrial Boiler Owners fought back. It commissioned a report that claimed the EPA’s June rule would put 338,000 jobs at risk and cost twice as much as the EPA/OMB estimate. “There are so many things that have to be changed (in the rule) to make it economically viable. They need to provide some flexibility,” said Robert D. Bessette, president of the Council, whose membership includes most of the nation’s largest chemical and paper products manufacturers. Their industrial boilers are among the largest stationary sources of air pollution outside the electricity generating and oil refining industries.
Earlier this month, the District of Columbia federal court turned down the EPA’s request for a delay and gave the agency until mid-February to come up with a final rule. “We are working to complete the final rules now,” a spokeswoman said.
“Congress will be closely monitoring the final rules when they are released next month and considering what steps can be taken to protect jobs and prevent reckless regulation,” said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI). “The EPA will come up with a rule that I’m sure will make no one happy,” predicted Bessette. “Either the enviros or us will petition for a reconsideration.”
The final industrial boiler rule doesn’t just have economic significance, it could signal the future direction of Obama administration policy on major regulatory issues. A number of major decisions coming down the pike will either please or enrage some of most powerful lobbying organisations in Washington, whether on the industry or environmental side. They include administration plans for regulating greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide; coal-burning electricity generating plants whose emissions cross state lines, the so-called clean air transport rule; and the next round of automobile fuel standards, which will go into effect in 2016.
Those major decisions, not skirmishes over minor or duplicative rules, will determine how far the administration is willing to go to please business. “We’re hoping that the agencies and Cass Sunstein will be doing a lot more cost-benefit analysis and offer more regulatory flexibility,” said Susan Eckerly, senior vice president for federal policy at the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a small- business lobbying group. “Those big EPA decisions might not impact small businesses right away, but they will affect our energy costs.”
Environmentalists and other public interest groups are getting ready to push back. “We want 60 miles per gallon by 2025 and a 6 per cent decrease in emissions,” said Ann Mesnikoff, director of the green transportation campaign at the Sierra Club. “California shows the technologies are there to get there very cost effectively.”
With unemployment stuck at 9.4 per cent, environmentalists recognise the general public is concerned about getting the economy humming again, so they are touting the job-generating potential of green technologies. Much of the intellectual muscle for their new approach is coming out of California, which has taken the lead on regulating greenhouse gases.
Charles Cicchetti of the Pacific Economics Group, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California and a Republican, recently issued a report that said the coal plant and industrial boiler rules would create one million jobs by generating $150 billion in new capital investment in the nation’s ageing energy infrastructure.
“These are real jobs that can be generated right now,” he said. “The technology exists; the capacity to produce it is sitting idle; and the electricity industry can self-finance anything… This is a far more effective way of creating jobs than the stimulus bill since the feds won’t have to borrow money and go further into debt.”