The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a perplexing beast. While the agency remains hellbent on regulating colorless, odorless and likely harmless greenhouse gas emissions, it has been utterly incapable of living up to its name with respect to the Gulf oil spill.
Not only was the EPA caught entirely unprepared for the oil spill, but also last week it actually tried to interfere with BP’s efforts to use a chemical called Corexit to speed up dispersal of the oil. When the EPA told BP that it should use a less toxic chemical, BP rightly ignored the order because it’s the oil, not the dispersant (stupid) that is the real threat to the environment, and there is no better option than the detergentlike Corexit.
Though laboratory toxicity tests show that Corexit will kill 50 percent of the fish exposed to a concentration of 15 parts per million over a period of four days, what the EPA seems to have overlooked is that there are no fish still living in an oil slick in the first place. By the time the oil has dispersed, so too will have the Corexit, down to nontoxic levels. But in the EPA mindset, all chemicals are bad and to be avoided - even ones that help and are, practically speaking, harmless.
But that is not the extent of the EPA’s failure.
Millions of feet of boom are desperately needed to corral the expanding slick and protect coastlines. Only a small fraction of that boom has arrived in the Gulf region, and not even all of that has been deployed. Let’s not forget the initial failure to have fire boom available nearby, which could have corralled the oil so that it could be burned - a 1990s-era requirement developed by the Clinton administration but not implemented by the EPA.
None of this is to excuse BP, the rig owners, and the other federal agencies whose performances have been far from inspiring, but at least none of them is called the Environmental Protection Agency.
As real pollution spews forth uncontrollably in the Gulf, the clueless EPA is meanwhile busy scheming to skirt the law and regulate the non-pollution that emanates from the nation’s power plants and manufacturing facilities.
Although the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in 2007 that the EPA could regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, that law would require that EPA regulate all sources of greenhouse gases that emit more than 250 tons per year. As the average American emits about 20 tons per year, it’s easy to see how the law would require the EPA to regulate virtually every small business and apartment building.
So, to avoid the obvious political problem of having to microregulate virtually all of society, the EPA devised a scheme (called the “tailoring rule”) to limit regulation to facilities that emit 100,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year. This may sound like a reasonable approach, except that the EPA lacks the legal authority to change the Clean Air Act, which sets the threshold for regulation at 250 tons.
Barring successful legal challenge, the EPA is planning to regulate large greenhouse-gas emitters starting in 2011.
The only remaining roadblock to the agency plan is a resolution introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski and 40 other Republican and Democratic senators to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Debate and vote on the resolution has been scheduled for June 10.
Despite its 41 co-sponsors, the Murkowski resolution is no cinch to get the 51 votes it needs to pass the Senate. Democratic moderates like Virginia’s Jim Webb and Mark Warner, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter and Bob Casey, North Dakota’s Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Republicans like Maine’s Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe have not yet publicly embraced the bill.
This is despite the fact that the EPA is showing precisely how unprepared and inept it is at dealing with a genuine environmental crisis. In contrast, the agency and its lawyers have been quite creative and adept at devising a scheme to create and regulate a non-crisis.
Passing the Murkowski resolution should be Congress’ first step in a longer process of re-evaluating what the EPA is all about.
Steve Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and is the author of “Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Control Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them” (Regnery 2009).
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