President Obama has made it pretty clear to his environmental extremist friends that during his second term, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will pursue a more aggressive, wider-reaching agenda than it has to date. That’s a very troubling prospect. Not only has EPA Director Lisa P. Jackson’s agency been wildly and needlessly intrusive into the private sector during the past four years, but its agenda increasingly has been based less and less on science and data and more and more on conjecture and hyperbole. Thus, Mrs. Jackson’s EPA has become almost indistinguishable — in a policy sense — from the environmental groups to which it panders. Science suffers as a result.
Patrick Moore, one of Greenpeace’s founding fathers, has been an unabashed critic of today’s environmental extremists and their abandonment of science. Environmental journalist Fred Pearce, no friend to industry by any means, recently posed the question: “Why are Environmentalists Taking Anti-Science Positions?” in a scathing column published at Yale Environment 360. Environmental groups have thus clearly embarked on a path that leads further away from reality with every step. They are free to make this choice, of course, and they surely will continue to make themselves increasingly irrelevant as a result of that choice. But why on earth would an organization like the EPA follow those groups down such a dangerous road? The answer can only involve politics or ignorance — or some combination thereof. The answer, however, surely doesn’t involve science as those of us trained in the sciences understand the term.
Central to the EPA’s anti-science approach is the virtual abandonment of sound risk assessments when considering potential environmental contaminants. Before the Obama administration, the EPA was consistent when evaluating risk. To oversimplify a complex process, pre-Obama EPA’s risk assessment involved prioritization and quantification: Identify those things that could present a substantial risk to a large population or part of the environment and then come up with cost-effective ways to reduce that risk. In other words, there was a presumption that some risks aren’t worth worrying about because they are just too tiny, and attempting to further reduce those risks would be a poor use of economic resources. Scientists associated with the EPA, the regulatory world and environmental groups spent a great deal of time and money coming up with frameworks and methodologies designed to separate those risks worth addressing from phantom risks.
Mr. Obama’s EPA has destroyed that framework and is recycling it into solar panels. In its place, we have a policy — undocumented but clearly in effect — that assumes every risk presents a real and immediate danger and, therefore, must be dealt with no matter the cost. The agency has almost made risk assessment irrelevant in many cases as it rushes into the much more expensive, and intrusive, stage of risk management.
Consider just one example: A few years ago, the EPA decided to study the potential environmental and health risks associated with a class of chemicals called siloxanes. These are innocuous compounds used in a variety of ways, including personal care products, lubricants, certain plastics, etc. They have been studied extensively, they do not pose a risk to human health, and to the extent that they go down the drain (as part of your shampoo, for example) they are easily treated at your local wastewater treatment plant. Independent scientific research clearly shows that these materials are safe for humans and the environment.
Nonetheless, Mrs. Jackson’s EPA has targeted this group of chemicals as part of a huge, expensive study that far more resembles a witch hunt than sound science. Industry has offered to look at a few worst-case scenarios, the idea being that if you don’t find anything to worry about in the worst case, why do any more? But the EPA has said it’s not interested in the worst case. The agency says it needs a ton of data to figure out how to manage these compounds better, even though there’s not a scrap of evidence indicating they’re not being managed correctly right now.
Indeed, as we’ve seen in case after case, this is the EPA’s new approach: Forget about risk evaluation because there is no risk so small that it’s not worth spending huge amounts of public and private dollars to lessen just a little more. That’s not science, folks, nor is it sound public policy. It’s simply a witch hunt, and now that the president has been re-elected, we’re going to have so many more of them that it would make 17th-century Puritans living in Salem blush.
Rich Trzupek is the author of “Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA Is Ruining American Industry” (Encounter, 2011).