September 2, 2011

ON MONDAY, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) set the fall agenda for the GOP House. Tops on his list was the delay, weakening or repeal of 10 “job-destroying” regulations, seven of which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is developing.

On Friday, the White House announced that it was halting the EPA’s work on one of those seven, an update to federal rules on ozone pollution. Speculation ensued about President Obama blinking in the face of GOP pressure and postponing a politically tough decision past the 2012 elections. The White House insisted that it was merely doing what Republicans accuse it of refusing to do: minimizing unnecessary regulatory burdens. The EPA is planning to revise the ozone rules again for 2013 or shortly thereafter, officials argued; why force businesses to adapt twice in two years?

What is clear is that the “job-destroying regulation” line is a better slogan than it is an expression of the real trade-offs involved in EPA regulation. Aside from ozone pollution, EPA rules under development would restrict the emission of mercury, acid gases, dangerous fine particles and other pollutants from power plants and other sources. These regulations have costs that can be predicted and measured, in jobs and dollars. They also have measurable benefits — lives saved, chronic illnesses prevented, hospital visits avoided and sick days not taken, which in turn have economic effects.

Yet, in reading Mr. Cantor’s indictment of the EPA’s efforts, you wouldn’t know that the agency subjects its regulations to cost-benefit analysis at all. True, such analysis contains uncertainties, but those affect the claims of critics as well as backers. In many cases, the EPA’s margin for error is large, with benefits exceeding costs many times over. The ozone rule was iffier in this respect, with a smaller projected net economic benefit.

An Aug. 8 review by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) refuted much of the criticism of the EPA’s regulatory push. Fears of disruption to the power sector are overblown, the CRS said: Newer coal power plants already have pollution controls, and many older ones are set to shut down anyway, in part because burning cleaner natural gas is now so cheap. Meanwhile, studies that many critics continue to rely on in their forecasts of expensive regulatory disaster assume stringent provisions that the Obama administration never proposed. A note from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, cited by many critics, admits that its analysis is “inadequate to use as a basis for decision-making, given that it used information and assumptions that have changed.”

Reasonable people can disagree on how much economic cost is worth bearing for how much environmental benefit. But the Republican critique seems to deny that such a trade-off even exists. Republicans could yet propose alternative ways to reap the benefits of environmental protection without command-and-control regulations. They’d deserve to be taken seriously if they made a case that the Obama administration isn’t maximizing the possible economic benefits of new rules or weighing the costs and benefits accurately. But they have opposed more efficient and decentralized ways to cut pollution, too.

Mr. Cantor’s document offers no real alternatives to the EPA’s general approach and no genuine critique of its cost­-benefit equation — just an unbalanced, if politically rewarding, criticism of the Obama administration.