The EPA's Dangerous Delay

A mini-firestorm erupted recently in response to the EPA's attempt to stall on a regulation to clean up mercury pollution from industrial plants; environmentalists see the move as a political cave in the face of a newly empowered congressional opposition.

The political case for stalling may be powerful: members of the incoming majority in Congress have pledged to make EPA an issue, bogging down the agency in paperwork and hearings in an attempt to thwart any agency action. Waiting for a year on this rule may be the safest thing to save energy for other priorities, allowing EPA to return to this issue when the political tides have turned.

But on the merits (lives saved, illness avoided, and net economic benefit created) punting on these rules is a mistake with real-life, out-of-the beltway consequences.

EPA has analyzed this issue for twenty years, conducted dozens of analyses and studies, and gathered information from hundreds of experts. In EPA's proposed rule, the result of all of this analysis was made clear: the massive environmental gains outweigh the costs of compliance.

One complaint raised is that most of the quantified environmental benefits come not from mercury, the target of the rule, but in so-called "co-benefits" -- reduction in other pollutants that will save lives across the country. The correct response is: "So what?" Regardless of the regulated pollutant, the rule will generate large scale returns.

More importantly, Congress gave the agency very specific statutory instructions on how to set these standards, and EPA's job is largely a straightforward application of the law. All of the additional analysis and political huffing and puffing in the world will not change EPA's duties, unless Congress wants to weaken the standards for hazardous air pollutants -- an unlikely prospect.

After twenty years of study, the time to move forward has come. This rule has been vetted and re-vetted by an alphabet soup of entities: multiple offices at EPA, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Department of Commerce and other affected agencies; it's been through four presidential administrations. If the rule does not proceed, it is not for lack of review.

In political terms, it may be a wise choice to ignore the evidence and try to buy some time. The President and his team certainly have a lot on their hands and are likely looking for ways to avoid damage. But in terms of the health and economic well-being of the American public, this dragging of heels is a dangerous decision.