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TRZUPEK: Age of environmental fear

We should celebrate our energy bounty, but instead we cower

Government regulators, environmental groups and the news media tell us that the air we breathe is polluted, the water we drink is tainted, our orange juice contains a fungicide, and evil corporations are hoping to make a profit at Mother Earth's expense. They also remind us that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal agencies are protecting us by fighting the greedy capitalists who seek our destruction.

Don't believe it.

The United States is among the cleanest nations on the planet. U.S. environmental programs have set the standard for the world. Many other nations copy our regulations wholesale. We have set tough goals and achieved them.

Lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and carbon monoxide levels have declined precipitously. Likewise, levels of benzene, arsenic, mercury and many other pollutants have decreased. Perhaps most important, the life expectancy of the average American has risen from 71 to about 77 years.

But don't expect the government or environmentalists to talk about this success. Admitting it endangers their purpose in life and their livelihoods. Instead, they tend to seize upon fears or a single bit of information from a pile of data and exaggerate it, no matter how unrepresentative it is of the truth.

Consider the concerns that have been raised about natural gas. Although this fuel represents the most energy-efficient and environmentally friendly option available, the Obama administration, environmental industry and mainstream media have sold America on "green" power. In their energy fantasyland, solar and wind power can meet our increasing energy needs despite the fact that both are inefficient and costly to consumers and provide intermittent power that requires a backup power-generating system.

Natural gas is abundant in the United States, and prices are low, averaging less than $4 per thousand cubic feet, which is significantly lower than the all-time high set in 2008. Yet a dark cloud looms over U.S. natural-gas production because the administration has launched a new study of hydraulic fracturing, the process that is coaxing gas from America's shale formations.

Despite the fact that energy experts are calling shale gas a "game changer" for U.S. energy security, unconfirmed reports of drinking-water pollution have spurred the EPA into action. Why the EPA would lend any credibility to unsubstantiated tales is hard to understand. Nor is it clear why the EPA would allocate $1.9 million to take a look at a technology that has been used in more than 1 million wells since the 1940s without one confirmed case of groundwater contamination.

A 2004 EPA study concluded that hydraulic fracturing did not present any threat to human health and the environment, but, of course, that was George W. Bush's EPA. Any of its decisions are subject to President Obama's reconsideration. But spending another $2 million to study fracturing again is silly.

Plus, action against fracturing has the potential to cut natural-gas production, eliminate jobs and raise energy prices. According to a study conducted by IHS Global Insight, a ban on hydraulic fracturing would cost the United States $374 billion in lost gross domestic product (GDP) by 2014, would result in the loss of about 3 million jobs and would require a 60 percent increase in imported oil and natural gas to make up the difference. Placing restrictions on the fluids used in the fracturing process would reduce GDP by $172 billion, destroy 1.4 million jobs and increase energy imports by 30 percent.

This is hardly the time to limit U.S. energy production. Iran's saber-rattling in the Persian Gulf and unrest in Nigeria's oil-producing region are threatening global energy supplies. And the administration's delay of the Keystone XL pipeline because of fears of health and environmental impacts could result in North American oil being shipped to China.

Government regulators and environmental groups are playing a game in which the smallest risks are turned into the biggest threats to advance their agenda. When it appears that progress against pollution is being made, they raise the bar and tighten the standards. They know their financial health depends on the unlikely specter of impending doom.

Who pays the price for ignoring progress and focusing on fear? It's not just American corporations. We all pay for regulatory excess.

Rich Trzupek is a chemist, consultant at Mostardi Platt and author of "Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA Is Ruining American Industry" (Encounter Books, 2011).

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