The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board Does Not Like Clean Air

The Wall Street Journal editorial board this week delivered one of its signature hyperventilating rants against clean air protections.

True to form, the disjointed effort mangles basic facts; omits mention of the overwhelming public health benefits from cleaner air; and casts the board as obliging bully puppet, woodenly repeating polluter ventriloquists' talking points.

The editorial begins with a tired and demonstrably false charge, that the Obama EPA’s regulatory output has outpaced the entire first term of the Clinton Administration implementing the just-enacted 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has already specifically refuted that false charge in an October 14 letter to Congressmen Barton and Burgess:

The pace of EPA’s Clean Air Act regulatory work under this administration is actually not faster than the pace under either of the two previous administrations.  In fact, EPA has finalized or proposed fewer Clean Air Act rules (87) over the past 21 months than in the first two years of either President George W. Bush’s administration (146) or President Clinton’s administration (115).

The Journal’s numbers don’t bear any resemblance to these official EPA figures. Indeed, the Journal’s numbers cannot even be verified because the editorial groups its numbers into two categories – “major regulations” and “major policy rules” – that either mean the same thing colloquially and legally, or that cannot be deciphered due to the editorial board’s garbled understanding. (The editorial also disingenuously jumbles its discussion of clean air and non-clean air rules, in order to make its erroneous point.)

The board’s trademark alarmist rhetoric is also pervasive, charging that the “scale of the EPA's current assault is unprecedented.” The foregoing numbers disprove the “unprecedented” claim.

So let’s examine some facts about these clean air rules to see what the Journal’s editorial board considers an EPA “assault”:

  • The EPA is adopting long-overdue clean air standards to carry out a bi-partisan statute – the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 – signed by a Republican President (George H. W. Bush), approved by 89 Senators (including 38 Republicans, all but 6), and 401 House members (including 154 Republicans, all but 16). Senators voting for the law that remain in the Senate today include Senators Baucus (D-MT), McCain (R-AZ), Bond (R-MO), Grassley (R-IA), Levin (D-MI) and McConnell (R-KY).
  • EPA is issuing these long-overdue clean air standards now primarily as a result of two factors: (1) the prior administration delayed required standards by regularly flouting statutory deadlines; and (2) the prior administration violated the Clean Air Act repeatedly and egregiously, resulting in court directives to EPA to re-issue lawful standards.
  • The EPA clean air standards facing these caustic editorial criticisms will save tens of thousands of lives each year, and prevent hundreds of thousands of incidences of asthma, bronchitis, and heart and lung disease annually. It takes a perverse species of uninformed indifference or ideological hostility to dub these health-saving and life-saving protections to be “assaults.”

EPA’s job and responsibilities are to carry out and enforce the Clean Air Act. If the Journal's editorial board can make the case that EPA is acting unlawfully, then it should do so. But since the editorial does not and cannot make that showing, calling EPA’s responsibilities an “assault” just amounts to insulting and irresponsible demagoguery.

It’s worth recalling the words of then-EPA Administrator William Reilly on November 15, 1990, the day that President Bush signed the Clean Air Act amendments: “We now begin the big job of achieving the goals mandated by this landmark legislation. As we move toward full implementation, we can be proud to know we are working to fulfill the President's pledge: that every American shall breathe clean air."

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Imagine this scene in the editorial board meeting as the writers decided on the centerpiece “case study” for their EPA attack:

"How shall we rake EPA over the bituminous coals of libertarian hell fire this week?"

"I know! Let's write an editorial attacking EPA’s Federal Register preambular discussion about modeling ambient SO2 emission concentrations in light of the uncertainties and limitations associated with ambient monitoring!”

"Yes! That will captivate our readership and affirm our relevance to the American people."

This piece and past Journal air pollution editorials make clear the editors often are fed talking points by a cabal of industry lobbyists and lawyers, evidently for the utility industry. But this editorial sets a new standard for elevating and distorting obscure minutiae.

For the 0.00001% of the populace that cares about this obscurity: “In the past, EPA has used a combination of modeling and monitoring for SO2 [emissions] during permitting, designations [of dirty air quality areas], and re-designations in recognition of the fact that a single monitoring site is generally not adequate to fully characterize ambient concentrations, including the maximum ground level concentrations, which exist around stationary SO2 sources.”

The quoted passage is from the EPA preamble that the editorial castigates, indicating that no one at the Journal evidently bothered to read that preamble, since it directly contradicts one of the editorial’s central (obscure) claims – that EPA has not used modeling in the past for dirty air designations.

The EPA SO2 rule in question continues this dual use of modeling and monitoring for dirty air designations around the country. What EPA is seeking is more accurate characterizations of ground level SO2 pollution levels, to allow more effective pollution control measures: “Because ambient monitors are in fixed locations and a single monitor can only represent impacts which occur at the location of the monitor, a single monitor cannot identify all instances of peak ground-level [SO2 pollution] concentrations….” 

That greater accuracy and need for better pollution control measures is what utility industry lobbyists cannot tolerate. And this is how the Journal’s editorial board inexplicably chooses to cast its lot.

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Midway through the editorial there is this especially audacious statement: Uncertainty created by EPA “has resulted in a near-total freeze on EPA permits, imposing a de facto project moratorium that will last for the next 18 months at minimum.”

This is utter nonsense. Sheer fiction. The editorial cannot and does not substantiate this claim. Because the Journal’s editorial board is writing an unsigned, one-off editorial, however, there is no accountability and evidently no fact-checking.

How the mighty mouths have fallen.

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At one point the editorial upbraids Administrator Jackson for her nerve in reviewing the protectiveness and scientific justification for clean air standards such as smog (ground-level ozone) and soot (fine particulate matter). This is how clean air is defined under the law to ensure that all Americans are provided healthy air quality. Administrator Jackson wants to make sure EPA upholds this promise to the American people.

The Journal editorial criticizes her attention, noting off-handedly that “each individual [clean air standard] has tended to run through a 15-year cycle on average since the Clean Air Act passed in 1970” before it is reviewed. Left unsaid by the editorial board is that the Clean Air Act requires these reviews to be conducted every five years. Accordingly, the “15-year cycle” that the editorial touts has been accomplished in gross violation of the law, unlawfulness that the editorial board has the audacity to criticize Jackson for not repeating.

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In a follow-up post, I will address some of the remaining falsehoods in the editorial concerning EPA’s overdue and crucial steps to reduce deadly toxic air pollution from coal-burning power plants and industrial facilities.

About the Authors

John Walke

Director, Clean Air Project, Climate & Clean Air program

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