Let's Be Honest About Environmental Safeguards


Having watched Wyoming Senator John Barrasso deliver the weekly address for his fellow Republicans, I'm not surprised that politicians have a popular reputation for exaggeration. Senator Barrasso took aim at federal requirements - particularly those that implement the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act - and claimed that the Obama administration over-aggressively enforces existing requirements and is implementing an agenda "based on ideology, rather than practicality," that is stifling economic growth in the country.

Senator Barrasso's polemic obscures reality in painting a picture of an administration hell-bent on controlling people's lives. The truth is far different, so let's take a look at his arguments, but actually consider the facts.

Senator Barrasso sets the tone for his attacks on federal safeguards by lambasting the Environmental Protection Agency for bringing an enforcement action under the Clean Water Act. The Senator certainly offers a bucolic description - a Wyoming family built a pond that "they thought ... was a beautiful addition to the dry landscape," and that "attracts birds and other animals that make our state a special place to live." However, Senator Barrasso failed to mention that the case arose after the Army Corps of Engineers discovered that part of a perennial stream called Six Mile Creek had been filled with "sand, gravel, clay, and concrete blocks" to create a dam without any kind of Clean Water Act permit for the discharge. That's just not okay - the Act ordinarily requires permits for dumping activities that significantly alter the hydrology of protected waters, which is a good thing for anybody who lives downstream and relies on the natural, flowing water. As a result, I see nothing remarkable, much less dastardly, about this case. But even if you disagree, take comfort in the fact that the people who constructed this dam will have an opportunity to show a court that their activity didn't violate the Clean Water Act and will, I'm sure, be aggressively represented at no charge by litigators with the Pacific Legal Foundation.

Pivoting from this enforcement case (which, I should point out, is not some new Obama administration invention - it is consistent with Bush administration policies about which waterways the Clean Water Act protects), Senator Barrasso next says "it's going to get worse," and assails the recently-adopted Clean Water Rule. He portrays that action as a huge new bid by federal bureaucrats to take over local land use decisions on a grand scale. What Senator Barrasso doesn't tell you is that the Clean Water Rule builds on a scientific foundation of more than 1,200 peer reviewed publications that collectively reveal how important a variety of streams, wetlands, and other waters are to larger waterways downstream, such that protecting these resources is essential. He also fails to mention that the rule primarily clarifies that a panoply of pollution protections in the Clean Water Act apply to water bodies that had historically been protected, but were in limbo because of court decisions and policies implemented by the prior administration; in fact, the rule will protect fewer waters than had been covered before the decisions spawning this uncertainty. And Senator Barrasso definitely doesn't reveal that the estimated benefits (not all of which could be quantified) of the rule outweigh the costs associated with its implementation. I've written about this rule a bunch, but I invite you to explore the materials about it that EPA has produced and draw your own conclusions about Senator Barrasso's claims.

Those of us working on water policy have gotten used to Senator Barrasso making wild charges or omitting inconvenient facts to justify his repeated attacks on clean water safeguards, but he didn't stop there this week. Indeed, he saved his biggest whopper for public protections in general, saying:

The Obama administration has issued more than 2,500 new regulations in the past six years.

Complying with these regulations is expected to cost our economy a staggering $680 billion.

Yikes! Really -- $680 billion? Well, no. Again, let's take a closer look.

After spending the better part of an afternoon spelunking through internet sites decrying the costs of federal government safeguards, I'm pretty sure that Senator Barrasso got his numbers on regulatory actions and their costs from the American Action Forum's "Regulation Rodeo" site, because running the site's calculator for the years 2009-2015 yields 2,541 regulations issued and a total cost of $679.9 billion. There's just one problem with this site (actually, I suspect there are many, but this one is enough to make it entirely worthless): it doesn't reveal the actual estimated economic impact of the listed requirements, because it ignores benefits altogether. The site's "Methodology" acknowledges this deficiency by saying "AAF presents data on total costs and paperwork hours. However, there are links to regulatory impacts analyses, which contain data on annual costs and possible benefits." In other words, "if you want to know the whole story, go ahead and read a couple thousand economic documents." More objective and complete analysis presents a very different picture; for instance, benefits under the Clean Air Act are expected to outweigh costs by a factor of 30 to 1.

This is no trifling matter. Take, for example, the most costly listed action on the site -- an EPA/National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rule establishing greenhouse gas and fuel economy requirements for 2017 and later model year light-duty vehicles. The site indicates the rule will cost $156 billion. But what the site and Senator Barrasso don't tell you is that the very same rule is projected to result in $475 billion in fuel savings for consumers and $126 billion in health and climate benefits over the program's lifetime, yielding net benefits of about $450 billion. The second-most costly rule is an EPA/NHTSA rule setting greenhouse gas emission standards for light duty vehiclesmodel years 2012-2016, and the numbers presented on "Regulation Rodeo" suffer from similar sins of omission. There too, the monetized benefits of health improvements and fuel savings are expected to substantially outweigh costs.

Ironically, Republicans like Senator Barrasso have pushed for legislation that incorporates cost-benefit analysis into federal regulatory decisions. Meanwhile, talking about rules that will "cost our economy" without accounting for benefits is nonsensical and misleading, because the net effect is what matters in figuring out whether the economic result is a plus or a minus. Using the same approach of ignoring half of the equation, because my weight has yo-yoed up and down for my entire adult life, such that I have gained many pounds (despite also losing many), I suppose Senator Barrasso would have you believe that I weigh something north of 1,000 pounds.

We can have legitimate debates about whether government should establish safeguards that regulate private economic activity to prevent or reduce threats to public health, safety, and welfare. I'm certain Senator Barrasso and I would reach different conclusions about what level of such protections make the most sense from a public policy standpoint. (Although I'd note that the requirements we're talking about are ones that Congress has directed the federal government to address.) But what we shouldn't do is play fast and loose with the facts to justify our preferred outcome.