Could Rick Perry dismantle the EPA on his own?

at 01:37 PM ET, 10/14/2011

After showing up empty-handed at Tuesday’s economic debate, Rick Perry has finally unveiled his jobs plan. Or rather, he’s put out an energy plan that doubles as the first part of a jobs plan. “Energizing American Jobs and Security,” Perry said in a speech at Pittsburgh on Friday, will “create more than a million good, American jobs across every sector of the economy and enhance our national security.” But wait! There’s more: “The best news is,” Perry added, “it can be set in motion in my first 100 days.”

In the Washington Post/Bloomberg debate, Perry even suggested he didn’t need Congress’s cooperation. “What we need to be focused on in this country today is not whether or not we are going to have this policy or that policy,” he said. “What we need to be focused on is how we get American working again. That’s where we need to be focused. And let me tell you, we are sitting on this absolute treasure trove of energy in this country. And I don’t need 9-9-9. We don’t need any plan to pass Congress.”

So would Perry’s energy plan actually work — with or without Congress? Let’s take it piece by piece:

Expand domestic drilling and create more than 1.2 million jobs. As it happens, oil and gas production has been booming under President Obama. Still, it’s true that Perry could relax restrictions further, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico (though this wouldn’t do much for energy independence). But would expanded drilling create 1.2 million jobs? Not likely. My colleagues Steve Mufson and Jia Lynn Yang recently reported that these job claims are maddeningly fuzzy. Michael Levi took a further crack at the numbers and notes that Perry’s estimates assume that Obama’s policies are much more restrictive than they actually are and ignore state-level obstacles. Realistically, the Perry plan would probably produce — at best — 500,000 jobs by 2030. That’s not nothing, but it doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Eliminate proposed EPA regulations. Let’s leave aside Perry’s claim that EPA rules will cost $127 billion by 2020. Could Perry actually scrap a whole bunch of Clean Air Act rules all by himself? Nope. Take the EPA’s greenhouse-gas rules. “It’d be very difficult for an administration to walk back these regulations by itself,” says Case Western University law professor Jonathan Adler, who’s no fan of the rules. The EPA, after all, is required to regulate carbon by the Supreme Court. Perry’s administration could try to overturn the agency’s “Endangerment Finding,” a scientific document arguing that carbon-dioxide poses a threat to human health and welfare. But given the solidity of climate science — and the fact that the EPA has been warning about global warming for the past 15 years — that’d be a hard sell in the courts. If Perry wanted to junk air-pollution rules, he’d need Congress. (See this law review article by Adler for more detail.)

Devolve EPA authority back to the states. This, again, is something that a President Perry likely couldn’t do on his own. It’s also a long-standing conservative hobbyhorse. Robert Kuehn, an environmental law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, testified about it way back in 1997, when Senate Republicans were discussing it. One likely outcome, Kuehn stressed, is that states might start competing to weaken environmental rules in order to poach factories from each other. What’s more, in some cases, state agencies would simply be overwhelmed by the scope of environmental lawsuits and enforcement. That could prove a good deal for polluters. But it’s quite different from claiming, as Perry does, that “states are best equipped to monitor and enforce environmental laws.”

Eliminate all subsidies for energy. It’s hard to figure out what, exactly, Perry is proposing here. Would all tax breaks and deductions for oil and gas expire? Or only some of them? There are certainly liberals who have advocated eliminating all energy tax breaks — see Jeffrey Leonard’s piece in the Washington Monthly. Other analysts have argued that fossil-fuel producers would primarily benefit from such a move, since they enjoy all sorts of legacy advantages. Note also that the nuclear industry, at least, believes that it’s impossible to get new reactors built without hefty loan guarantees. It’d be interesting to know whether Perry thinks — pace most Republicans — that it’s time to bring America’s experiment with nuclear power to a gradual close. Either way, he’d need Congress’s cooperation here, too.

Bottom line: Perry’s job promises look overstated, and he’d need Congress’s help for many of these ideas. Still, the plan offers a panoramic view of how Perry would approach energy — full speed ahead with fossil-fuel production and as little environmental regulation as possible (or at least prioritizing job considerations over all other potential benefits from air-pollution rules).

 
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