Commentary

Is This the End of Obama's EPA Legacy?


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President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to pick Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency indicates that Trump intends to dismantle President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy.

Writers at the Environmental Defense Fund have criticized Pruitt for his ties to fossil fuel interests, implying that placing him in EPA’s top spot would be like putting a fox in charge of the hen house. Nevertheless, Trump is motivated by the belief that EPA needs to “refocus.”

As Obama was running for the White House eight years ago, he said that his environmental plan would make electricity rates “skyrocket.” During his time as president, the EPA has loosed a series of regulations that not only lay the groundwork for higher electricity prices but that have cost tens of thousands of people their livelihoods.

Last month, a District Court judge reprimanded EPA for failing to comply with a requirement in the Clean Air Act mandating that it estimate the number of jobs lost as a result of environmental regulations. Over the last few years, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy responded to requests for such job-loss estimates by stating that those calculations were not done because they are of “limited utility.”

To whom, one might ask? EPA’s bureaucrats, obviously.

It’s unfortunate that the EPA thinks the livelihoods of thousands of people who may be adversely affected by regulation are not worth studying. This is sloppy policymaking that indicates the EPA is more concerned with pursuing a political agenda than with crafting sound policy.

During Obama’s tenure, the EPA has grown bold in manipulating the legal process in order to achieve political goals. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule, for example, was sold as a public health safeguard that would cut mercury and acid gas emissions. But the pleasant-sounding rule will cost power plants almost $10 billion per year (a cost passed to electricity consumers), promising benefits of just $4 million to $6 million per year.

In order to justify the high cost of MATS to the public, EPA channeled the ghosts of Enron past and used some creative accounting by including the co-benefits resulting from the reduction of substances that are not covered under the hazardous-air-pollutants program.

More concerning than EPA’s dubious accounting practices, however, is its flippant attitude toward the legal framework within which it must operate. Before the Supreme Court even decided on the appropriateness of MATS, Administrator McCarthy stated that the ruling of the Supreme Court wouldn’t matter because the litigation process had taken so long that most of the power plants were either in compliance already or would be soon.

This means that EPA has the ability to do sloppy work, exploit the legal process, and still get its way, regardless of whether the rule is appropriate and necessary. The British novelist C.S. Lewis wrote of people who behave in such a manner; he called them “moral busybodies ... (who) will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Cheap and abundant energy is the bedrock of our economy and is necessary to maintain our high standard of living. Regulation affecting our energy supply should be appropriate, necessary, and crafted with great care. It should not be done without honest reflection about those who will be harmed in order to achieve the desired result.

Let’s hope that Trump’s pick to head his administration’s EPA is able to refocus and restrain the agency’s overreaches because all Americans are affected by the decisions made by a small group of bureaucrats in Washington.


William F. Shughart II is Research Director and Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University, and editor of the Independent Institute book, Taxing Choice: The Predatory Politics of Fiscal Discrimination.

Michael Jensen is a research associate at Utah State University’s Institute of Political Economy.


  From William F. Shughart II
TAXING CHOICE: The Predatory Politics of Fiscal Discrimination
So-called “sin taxes”—the taxing of certain products, like alcohol and tobacco, that are deemed to be “politically incorrect”—have long been a favorite way for politicians to fund programs benefiting special interest groups. But this concept has been applied to such “sinful” products as soft drinks, margarine, telephone calls, airline tickets, and even fishing gear. What is the true record of this selective, often punitive, approach to taxation?