- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2000

Should cost considerations be taken into account when a government agency issues regulations? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its allies in the environmental advocacy movement think not. If it costs the economy more precisely, the American people millions or even billions of dollars to address a risk that might be no more than hypothetical, well, "the children" are worth it.

Cost-benefit analysis has, in fact, been explicitly rejected by EPA and by lower courts since 1980, which have held that the language of the federal Clean Air Act prohibits EPA from considering compliance costs when promulgating its rules no matter how unfeasible or expensive or of dubious benefit those rules might happen to be. This week, the Supreme Court announced its intention to review the matter and to consider whether the agency's reading of the statute is correct.

The abuses flowing from the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act illustrate clearly why the discipline of cost-benefit analysis is so desperately needed to rein in an often out-of-control EPA. Based on the virtually unlimited authority granted by these amendments, EPA promulgated expensive new regulations relating to motor fuels additives and ground level ozone standards. The fuel standards forced the adoption of the "oxygenate" Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE), which was supposed to improve air quality but which instead has contaminated ground water and done no good for anyone's health. Per gallon prices for the oxygenated fuel rose 5-10 cents or more amounting to a multimillion dollar tax on American motorists that ended up making them pay to pollute their drinking water. MTBE is now acknowledged to be a public health threat and is being discontinued as a motor fuels additive.

Based on the authority of the 1990 amendments, EPA also decided to unilaterally lower the air quality standards at which a geographic region is deemed to be "out of compliance" and subject to stringent regulatory oversight and strong-arm tactics from Washington. But the benefits of lowering the standards and thereby reclassifying areas that had formerly been considered perfectly healthy into sinks of pollution were never quantified. Subsequent analysis found that at best, perhaps a few thousand elderly people and others afflicted with severe respiratory problems, might possibly benefit. (It's an open question as to whether an 80-year-old with asthma will be able to go jogging on a 90-degree July afternoon because EPA has lowered ground level ozone by .0002 parts per million.)

"The clean air standards at issue here are beyond what is needed to protect the public health," said Robin Conrad, a representative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She told the Associated Press that cost-benefit analysis will serve the very real public interest of forcing the EPA to "make principled decisions on air quality" and "prevent adoption of unneeded and unfeasible standards." That shouldn't be too much to ask even of EPA.

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