- - Monday, December 9, 2013

No crystal ball is necessary to foretell what’s in store for the country in the new year. The Obama administration has a scheme to regulate the air itself.

It’s all laid out in a bureaucratic document, the fall 2013 Unified Agenda, which was released just before Thanksgiving. The dull tome is the rule-maker’s magnum opus, a collection of forthcoming diktats crafted by federal agencies and departments. The Environmental Protection Agency contributed several spools of red tape, including 134 major new hoops that Americans should prepare to jump through in the months to come. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, warned of the crippling effect of the new strictures on the economy. “These new rules,” explains Mr. Vitter, “listed in the Unified Agenda will have a substantial impact on the future of this country’s energy production and independence.”

The pile of federal proposals includes pre-rule actions, proposed rules, final rules or interim final rules, long-term actions and completed actions. While not every regulatory trial balloon will survive, the directives that prevail are expected to, among other things, tighten carbon-dioxide emission limits for new and existing power plants, limit ozone emissions and airborne particulate matter, and further reduce vehicle-exhaust emissions. In particular, the Tier 3 tailpipe-emissions rule set to take effect in 2017 will force oil companies to substantially reduce the sulfur content and other chemicals in fuel. The extra refining required is expected to raise the price of gasoline by as much as 9 cents a gallon and boost the price of a new car by $130.

These rules have nothing to do with ensuring that we have fresh air to breathe. Every time we inhale oxygen, we exhale carbon dioxide, which is the very gas the administration most villainizes as a “pollutant.” Other rules, for instance, reduce particulate-matter emissions to such an impossible-to-achieve level that the result will have barely any perceptible impact in terms of air quality, but the cost of compliance will be crippling. That’s the whole point.

Fresh limits on emissions from power plants will shutter coal-fired power plants, fulfilling President Obama’s 2008 campaign pledge to bankrupt the coal industry with environmental mandates. The Supreme Court agreed in October to hear a challenge to the new rules mounted by various states and industry representatives, offering a possible 11th-hour rescue if the high court overrules an overweening EPA.

Official hubris is so endemic under Mr. Obama that leading legal scholar Jonathan Turley warned the House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 3 of the rise of an “uber-presidency.” “The problem with what the president is doing,” Mr. Turley testified, “is that he’s not simply posing a danger to the constitutional system. He’s becoming the very danger the Constitution was designed to avoid. That is the concentration of power in every single branch.” An astute observer of human nature, Thomas Jefferson warned, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” stands as the classic warning about the danger of government tyranny, but not even George Orwell foresaw the diabolical simplicity of wielding rules over the air to bind human activities on the ground. Americans need to breathe, but they also need to eat. Rules that protect the skies must be balanced with an awareness of their crushing impact on the nation’s economic well-being.