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GOP Science Subcommittee Kicks Off 113th Congress With Promise of More Outlier Attacks

John Walke

Posted February 13, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, U.S. Law and Policy

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[Co-authored with my colleague, Jon Devine.]

The House Science Subcommittee on Environment is holding its first hearing of the 113th Congress entitled “The State of Environment: Evaluating Progress and Priorities.” With their two announced witnesses, the Republican majority is signaling that this session of Congress promises to feature more sharp attacks on health and environmental safeguards and the Environmental Protection Agency. This picks up where last session's House majority left off with the most anti-environmental voting record in our nation’s history. [pdf]

Republicans have invited Heartland Institute resident expert, Richard Trzupek, who authored the recent polemic, "Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA Is Ruining American Industry." The second GOP witness is a former chairwoman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Kathleen Hartnett White, author of the equally combative EPA's Approaching Regulatory Avalanche: "A Regulatory Spree Unprecedented in U.S. History.

We look forward to reading their testimony. For now, let's examine some of Mr. Trzupek's and Ms. White's statements to see why the GOP majority might have invited them.

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Mr. Trzupek is an industry consultant who also serves as resident expert at the conservative-libertarian Heartland Institute, which last year ran a billboard campaign comparing believers in man-made climate change to psychopathic Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. That campaign ended abruptly following public outrage and corporate donors fleeing the Institute.

But Mr. Trzupek’s colleague, Heartland Institute communications director Jim Lakely, still has a doctored video posted to his YouTube account that uses footage from the Hitler bunker scene in the film Downfall to reveal Hitler as the mastermind behind “the dream of a one-world government based on strictly enforced CO2 restrictions.” Lakely’s video depicts prominent climate scientists James Hansen and Michael Mann, among others, in the roles of Nazi officers that were later executed for their war crimes.

Mr. Trzupek also testified [pdf] before the Subcommittee on Environment last year at a hearing entitled “Costs and Benefits of Environmental Regulation.” He evidently distinguished himself enough in the eyes of Republican members to be invited back again.

Errors and ideological attacks are a recurring feature in Mr. Trzupek’s writings. Some of Mr. Trzupek’s errors are basic historical mistakes, like his claim that President Nixon signed the original Clean Water Act in 1970. He did not. Congress overrode Nixon’s veto to enable the Clean Water Act to become law in 1972. Pub. L. No. 92-500, §4(a), 86 Stat. 816 (1972).

In a similar vein, Mr. Trzupek recently told a pair of dumbfounded interviewers (listen to the discussion about 1:15 into this piece) that the EPA Administrator is not confirmed by the Senate.

Other historical mistakes are more serious because the actual facts thoroughly undermine the point Mr. Trzupek is trying to make. For example, he has written that under the original Clean Air Act, “air would be considered ‘clean’ only if no more than X parts per million of particulate matter and Y parts per million of carbon monoxide were detected.” He writes that “[t]he original ozone target in the first Clean Air Act was a concentration of 120 parts per billion in the air.” These claims are just plain false.

There are no numerical standards in the section of the Clean Air Act Mr. Trzupek is discussing. Rather the law outlines the scientific and policy process that EPA must use to set air quality standards and requires that those standards be updated regularly because scientific understanding can change.

The governing statutory language for standards guaranteeing clean air is the same today as it was in the 1970 Act: air quality standards must be “requisite to protect the public health” “allowing an adequate margin of safety.” Pub. L. No. 91-604, § 4(a), 84 Stat. 1676 (1970). This is not a static numeric standard, as Mr. Trzupek describes it, but a dynamic qualitative standard dedicated to protecting public health based on evolving understandings of health science and air pollution.

Mr. Trzupek's assertion that there was an ozone target of 120 ppb in the first Clean Air Act is pure invention. Congress did not set any numeric ozone standard in the original Act, instead relying upon EPA’s review of the heath science to establish a numeric standard through rulemaking. (EPA did set an initial ozone standard of 120 ppb through rulemaking, but has since strengthened that wildly unprotective standard twice, first to 84 ppb, then 75 ppb.)

Mr. Trzupek’s mistakes would be more forgivable had he not constructed an anti-health argument on his factually flawed foundation. Here is Truzpek’s erroneous and politically loaded characterization of EPA carrying out the statutory language just quoted:

Unfortunately for the EPA, America cleaned up the air to the point that just about every county met that [120 ppb] goal. What to do? If you’re the EPA and you actually meet a goal, the choices are: 1) declare victory (and lose funding), or 2) move the goalposts back so that you stay relevant. Guess which choice the agency always makes?

You see, Mr. Trzupek would have us believe that because the country successfully reduced air pollution below levels that were unprotective and outdated decades ago, then steps by EPA to follow the law (protecting public health with an adequate margin of safety) can only be self-aggrandizing manipulations to remain relevant. If only EPA had stuck with the numeric standards Congress set in the 1970 law (except that Congress did not do that), then Mr. Trzupek believes EPA could, just maybe, begin its reform project to stop going wild and ruining American industry.

This is nonsense. Rather than engaging the law and science on their merits, Mr. Trzupek resorts to his tried-and-true technique of demonizing EPA. He even blithely ignores, then contradicts, a unanimous Supreme Court opinion that ruled the Clean Air Act prohibits EPA from considering economic factors when setting clean air standards that must be based on health considerations alone (“President Bush considered [EPA’s outside science advisors’] advice and weighed that against the economic price that would be paid and decided – rightly in my opinion – that the tiny improvement in already good air quality wouldn’t come close to offsetting the economic consequences.”)

Mr. Trzupek evidently believes the air is clean enough, and there’s little more to be gained, really, from better safeguards, which explains a recurring disdain in his writings for EPA upholding environmental laws. These sentiments are given voice in one of his most recent publications, unabashedly entitled, How the EPA’s Green Tyranny is Stifling America. There he writes:

However, nobody is going to declare victory and go home. Nobody is going to say, “That’s clean enough, America – let’s cut back the size of the EPA and the environmental industry and just go into maintenance mode.” ….

Thus, even though the goals of the original Clean Air and Clean Water acts have long been fulfilled just about everywhere, those achievements don’t represent an end but rather a beginning.

These views are so central to Mr. Trzupek’s writing, and so thoroughly and demonstrably wrong, that it explains and taints many of his errors. As the Clean Air Act example above shows, Mr. Trzupek just flat out misunderstands the goals of the original Clean Air Act. By the goal Congress actually established, safeguarding air quality to levels “requisite to protect public health” “with an allowable margin of safety,” well over 100 million Americans [pdf] still live in areas experiencing unhealthy air quality [pdf]. And once EPA completes its overdue review of national smog standards, air quality standards will need to be strengthened in accordance with the best science and would show that many millions more Americans are living in areas that today are deemed incorrectly to have good air quality.

Mr. Trzupek gets the goals of the original Clean Water Act just as wrong. When he said that the law’s goals “have long been fulfilled just about everywhere,” one assumes he must have consulted the first section of the Clean Water Act, which is helpfully titled “Declaration of Goals and Policy.” This section lays out a number of ambitious goals that Congress had in mind when enacting the law, a number of which one could very easily argue are unfulfilled, but let’s just take the first two.

The first provision of the 1972 Act, still in effect today, says [pdf]:

SEC. 101. (a) The objective of this Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters. In order to achieve this objective it is hereby declared that, consistent with the provisions of this Act—

(1) it is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985; and

(2) it is the national goal that wherever attainable, an interim goal of water quality which provides for the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and provides for recreation in and on the water be achieved by July 1, 1983.

Yes, you read that right. The Act included goals to eliminate the discharge of pollutants by 1985 and ensure, “wherever attainable,” that waters across the country be fishable and swimmable by 1983.

So, how have we fared in meeting these goals? The latest compilation of state water assessments [pdf] found that 44% of assessed rivers/streams, 64% of assessed lakes/reservoirs, and 30% of assessed estuaries did not fully attain established water quality standards, including those meant to protect people who swim and fish these waters.  

For example, as of 2010, all 50 states [pdf] had waterbodies with mercury advisories in effect, warning people not to eat contaminated fish. That same year, “there were 16.4 million lake acres and 1.1 million river miles under advisory for mercury.” And just think about it yourself -- would you swim in or eat fish from every water body in the U.S.?

We do agree with Mr. Trzupek that the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act have been tremendously successful laws. Thanks to the 1970 Clean Air Act and 1977 amendments, the law prevented more than 205,000 premature deaths in the year 1990 alone. And an NRDC analysis of EPA's report, "Benefits and Costs of the Clean Air Act from 1990 to 2020," shows that "the 1990 amendments will have cumulatively saved 4.2 million lives and avoided millions of cases of pollution-related illness by 2020—including 43.8 million cases of asthma exacerbation, 3.3 million heart attacks, 2.1 million hospital admissions and 2.2 million emergency room visits, and 313 million lost work days."

Since the Clean Water Act passed, the percentage of waters not meeting state standards has dropped, despite a significant increase in U.S. population; the rate of wetlands loss shrank dramatically, by roughly three-fourths; sewage treatment plants have been required to upgrade their pollution control equipment, substantially decreasing their impact on waters; and pollution standards for more than 50 industries have prevented the discharge of over 700 billion pounds of pollutants per year into our nation’s waters, according to EPA. But that does not mean there are no serious problems left to solve.

There is a tendency in Mr. Trzupek’s writings to resort to ad hominem slurs instead of rebutting or even engaging arguments on their merits about how best to solve these remaining problems. Here are some of his passing characterizations of public health and environmental organizations: “hysterical enviro-types. . . [with] their incessant shrieking”; “eco-puritans”; “alarmists”; “environmental doom industry”; “tyrannical environmental groups"; and “eco-radicals.”

He reserves his most bitter ad hominem attacks, however, for EPA. Along with his recent publications, How the EPA’s Green Tyranny is Stifling America, and Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA Is Ruining American Industry, he has compared EPA enforcement officials to Al Capone’s gangsters shaking down power companies (that violated the Clean Air Act, minor detail).

And what does Mr. Trzupek say about power companies and House Republicans’ attacks on the Obama administration for a War on Coal trumped up by administration critics? He writes:

The bottom line here is that coal is pretty much dead no matter what the president says--as long as he’s not so destructive as to stop shale gas production as well. Many energy companies are not thinking about coal any more, not because of the rules but because of the economics. However, such fuel-switching does not come without consequences.

This passage was delivered with no apparent sense of irony or self-awareness (or apology) by the same author of this screaming headline seven weeks earlier: “Obama Delivers a Death Blow to the Coal Industry."

How things do change dramatically in Mr. Trzupek’s writings: one day the president has delivered the “death blow to the coal industry,” seven weeks later “coal is pretty much dead no matter what the president says,” due to accurate observations about natural gas economics. Of course those same natural gas economics were evident throughout 2012 and much of 2011, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a good headline.

But at least Mr. Trzupek shows admirable candor by acknowledging that natural gas economics rather than bogus claims about a regulatory War on Coal are responsible for the current status of coal electricity generation. One wonders how this will play with those GOP Science Committee members that continue to rail disingenuously about a War on Coal motivated by their own political blood sport rather than facts.

Mr. Trzupek publishes anti-environmental, EPA-bashing articles regularly on the ultra-conservative frontpagemag.com, created by far-right author, David Horowitz. (And as paranoid as the charge is that those concerned about human-caused climate change are conspiring to create a “one-world government,” Horowitz has warned in a recent interview that “the movement for environmental protection is America’s 'biggest threat' because it is working with Obama to impose government 'control over everybody’s life' under the excuse of preventing climate change, 'the chimera of the left.'")

Each of Mr. Trzupek’s articles on frontpagemag.com is preceded by a helpful sentence summarizing his even-tempered world views:

  • “A glimpse into the zealotry governing Obama’s out-of-control agency.”
  • “The administration continues to sabotage America’s future.”
  • “Sabotaging America: The Obama Energy Agenda.”
  • “Lies from the president as elite radicals nix jobs for struggling blue-collar workers.”

And here is Mr. Trzupek's thoughtful take on climate change science: “global-warming pseudo-science that has become the twenty-first century’s version of alchemy."

Along with Mr. Trzupek, the Subcommittee on Environment will also hear from Kathleen Hartnett White, formerly with the Texas CEQ, and now with the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment.

This work she authored might have been what caught the eye of Republican staff seeking a dispassionate, even-tempered expert witness for the hearing on environmental priorities and progress: EPA's Approaching Regulatory Avalanche: "A Regulatory Spree Unprecedented in U.S. History." [pdf]   

Many of the raw assertions in Ms. White's report are so preposterous that, whatever one's politics, it leaves an informed reader slack-jawed in disbelief. Lodging a broadside attack against ten EPA standards controlling pollution ranging from smog, soot, mercury, lead, arsenic and dioxins to greenhouse gas pollution, Ms. White actually wrote these words in a report [pdf] that she was willing to admit to authoring: "Yet the new rules have marginal, if indeed measurable at all, health benefits. Nor are they supported by credible science."

The health standards dismissed so casually by Ms. White will save tens of thousands of lives, prevent tens of thousands of heart attacks and strokes, and hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks, among other benefits. (See, e.g.here, here, here and here). [pdf] The science behind the soot pollution responsible for many of these health hazards has been affirmed by the National Academy of Sciences, EPA's Clean Air Science Advisory Committee [pdf], numerous medical bodies [pdf] and recently in the World Health Organization's Global Burden of Disease report. [pdf]

But Ms. White knows this not to be "credible science."

On the greenhouse gas front, a federal court unanimously upheld [pdf] two EPA standards that Ms. White lambastes. In doing so, the court rejected challenges by Texas, among others, and ruled that "[t]he body of scientific evidence marshaled by EPA in support of [its greenhouse gas] Endangerment Finding is substantial." EPA meticulously supported its finding in a 200+ page document [pdf] based on "assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), and the National Research Council (NRC)."

Not credible science, says Ms. White.

You will have guessed by now that Ms. White's report does not begin to substantiate her charge that literally thousands of scientific studies underlying the ten attacked rules are not supported by "credible science." In fact the report does not even really try. Her charge is not even an argument, but throw away assertion, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

The report is replete with unsupported (and insupportable) indictments, like this astonishing one: "Cumulatively, EPA rules scheduled to become effective in the next three years could cost more than $1 trillion and destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs." Ms. White's citation for this preposterous claim? Nothing. [pdf]

Ms. White's writings highlight and criticize regulatory compliance costs for industry without having the evenhandedness to identify the benefits for the American people. Clean Air Act standards regularly deliver public health benefits that far exceed industry compliance costs, by factors of up to 10 to 1 [pdf] and 171 to 1 [pdf], using recent examples. Ms. White ignores this.

Ms. White has also grossly misstated the impacts of clean water regulations. Take, for example, her discussion of a rule [pdf] that EPA is currently developing, along with an analysis of her claims by our colleague, Steve Fleischli (Steve’s comments in italics):

EPA plans to require far costlier closed-cycle technology such as cooling towers for all steam-generating power plants to replace the cooling ponds and other site-specific facilities now authorized by state agencies.

EPA has never announced such a plan. In fact, the preferred option in EPA’s 2011 proposal leaves such decisions to state permit writers. For illustrative purposes, EPA estimated that this state-based approach could lead to 46 to 76 facilities upgrading to closed cycle-cooling.

EPA’s new one-size-fits-all performance standards may cost an estimated $64 billion, affect 444 plants (30 percent of the existing U.S. electric generating capacity), and reduce net generation up to 4 percent. The new requirements would force major retrofits of those 444 plants.

Again, EPA has never announced such a requirement. Under EPA’s preferred option, EPA estimated [pdf] annualized costs of $383 million. 

There are no human health impacts involved. Acting under the Clean Water Act, EPA’s concern is 'impingement' mortality of fish and 'entrainment' of their eggs and larvae, reduction of which, according to EPA’s dictated methods, may cost $64 billion and jeopardize electric reliability.

Impingement and entrainment are the mechanisms by which power plants kill fish and larvae -- an EPA-estimated 2.2 billion age-one equivalent fish, crabs and shrimp; 528 billion larvae; and 130,000 threatened and endangered species (88 different kinds). Again, EPA’s preferred option has an estimated cost far below the figure cited. EPA also found that under its preferred option total capacity loss from early retirements by 2028 is 1,056 MW at the national level, or 0.2 percent of baseline capacity at the affected units.

While not EPA's preferred option, EPA also considered the impact of closed cycle cooling retrofits at all facilities with intake greater than 2 mgd, and estimated that it would have an annualized cost of $4.63 billion. We support this kind of national closed-cycle provision, not only because it would protect our critical aquatic resources, but because EPA’s data show that the benefits of widespread closed-cycle cooling outweigh the costs by more than 3:1 and provide a greater net social benefit ($13 billion a year) than any other option considered by EPA.

An offer by the electric power industries to replenish fish numbers fell upon deaf ears at EPA.

Industry can always voluntarily replenish fish that are killed by power plant intakes. However, this does not relieve these facilities of compliance with the Clean Water Act’s requirement that the location, design, construction and capacity of cooling water intake structures reflect the best technology available for minimizing adverse environmental impact. To the extent replenishment has fallen on deaf ears, that’s because a federal court of appeals ruled that such an approach does not conform with the legal requirement of the Act.

In addition to her errors, Ms. White displays the same flair for rhetorical insult exhibited by Mr. Trzupek: "Once just a peripheral source of pesky but absorbable costs, the EPA is now ground zero for regulatory damage." Thanks to EPA, "America will continue to trudge toward the regulatory cliff."

She actually closes one of her recent essays with a stale chestnut that conservatives usually keep squirreled away under a rock, equating Socialism with liberalism: "under the innocuous nostrum of 'environmentalism,' whole swaths of the 'socialist program' can be established without any input from elected representatives."

It continues to fascinate how self-described conservatives show so much disregard for the Rule of Law, and struggle to pretend that federal agencies are doing something other than carrying out laws passed by earlier Congresses and signed by the president. When these conservative critics decry a "lack of input from elected representatives," they conveniently ignore the elected officials that passed the laws that agencies like EPA are enforcing. And they focus exclusively on a subset of today's elected representatives that wish those laws never had been passed in the first place to authorize EPA regulation. Not a very "conservative" view of the law.

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These are the views that today’s Republican majority has provided a platform for on the House Science Committee’s environment subcommittee. This is a storied committee that enjoyed a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable, serious and professional committees in Congress under the leadership of former Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and former Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN).

We welcome an honest discussion about the state of the environment today, as well as the role of clean air and clean water regulations in the economy and in protecting our families’ health and welfare. Unfortunately, the Subcommittee on Environment is kicking off its first hearing of the 113th Congress by raising real concerns that the subcommittee majority aims to keep honest and informed discussion outside the hearing room.

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Comments

DesertphileFeb 13 2013 04:18 PM

Many years ago I had hoped that the Republican Party would cease working for their constituents (corporations) and start working for Americans and America. Foolish of me, yeah, I know.

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