The high cost of zero

New EPA regulations will cost billions with no detectable results

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The count is 1,920, and rising. That’s how many regulations President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has promulgated since his 2009 inauguration. Many, if not most, will bring few health or environmental benefits — but will impose high economic and unemployment costs, often to advance the administration’s unabashedly anti-hydrocarbon agenda.

The Heritage Foundation calculates that the EPA’s 20 “major” rule-making decisions to date (costing $100 million or more annually) alone could cost the United States more than $36 billion per year.

The latest in this regulatory tsunami involves a third layer of rules that the agency claims will further improve air quality by forcing refineries to remove yet more sulfur from gasoline. The so-called Tier 3 rules need to be examined in the context of U.S. air-pollution history.

Since 1970, America’s cars have eliminated 99 percent of pollutants that once came out of tailpipes. “Today’s cars are essentially zero-emission vehicles, compared to 1970 models,” says air pollution expert Joel Schwartz, co-author of “Air Quality in America.”

Recent models start out cleaner and stay cleaner throughout their lives, he adds. “As a result, fleet turnover has been reducing on-road emissions by an average of about 8 [percent] to 10 percent per year.” Over time, that has brought tremendously improved air quality, and continues to do so.

Since 2004 under Tier 1 and 2 rules, refiners have reduced sulfur in gasoline from an average of 300 parts per million to 30 ppm — a 90 percent drop. By 2022, existing emission-reduction requirements will slash volatile organic pollutants by an additional 62 percent, carbon monoxide by another 51 percent and nitrous oxides 80 percent — on top of reductions achieved between 1970 and 2004.

Even this doesn’t satisfy federal regulators. Now the EPA wants sulfur levels slashed to 10 parts per million — even though the agency’s own computer models demonstrate that Tier 3 rules would yield essentially no air quality or health benefits, when earlier and ongoing reductions are factored in.

In fact, Tier 3 improvements would reduce monthly ozone levels by barely 0.5 parts per billion on average to 1.2 parts per billion at peak levels, according to estimates by Environ International Corp., using EPA models. To illustrate how tiny a cut this is, it’s equivalent to saving 5 to 12 cents out of $100 million. These reductions could not even have been measured by equipment existing a couple decades ago. The improvement to human health would be essentially zero.

However, the new Tier 3 standards would cost $10 billion in upfront capital expenditures and an additional $2.4 billion in annual compliance expenses, the American Petroleum Institute and other industry experts say. They will raise the price of gasoline by 6 to 9 cents a gallon, on top of new state fuel-tax hikes and gasoline prices that have rocketed from $1.79 to $3.51 per gallon of regular unleaded under Mr. Obama.

These costs ripple throughout the economy, affecting job creation and retention, the price of goods and services, commuting costs and the price tag on family vacations. They kill jobs and harm poor families most of all.

Moreover, these Tier 3 rules are loaded on top of carbon-dioxide, mercury, particulate, water-quality and numerous other rules that are being imposed to address risks and achieve benefits that exist only in EPA and environmental-activist computer models, press releases and fear campaigns. They are an integral part of the administration’s war on coal and other fossil fuels.

Another serious problem is that the EPA always assumes there is no safe threshold level for pollutants and that they must constantly be ratcheted downward, eventually to zero. This flies in the face of what any competent epidemiologist knows: The dose makes the poison.

There is a point below which a chemical is not harmful. There are even chemicals that at low or trace quantities are essential to proper operation of our muscular, brain and other bodily functions but at higher doses, can be poisonous. There are also low-level chemical, radiation and pathogen exposures that actually safeguard our bodies from cancer, illness and other damage, in a process known as hormesis.

The EPA thinks the additional pollution reductions demanded by its Tier 3 sulfur rules and thousands of other regulations are technologically possible. The prevailing attitude seems to be: If it can be done, the agency will require it, no matter how high the costs or how minimal the benefits.

Coal, oil and natural gas provide 84 percent of the energy that powers America and makes our health and living standards possible. Wind, solar and biofuel sources provide less than 4 percent — and have serious health and environmental problems of their own.

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