Several commentators have characterized the selection of Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to become the next EPA Administrator as a sharp stick in the eye to the agency and its employees. They’re right — and seldom has any herd of federal bureaucrats been more deserving of it. For decades, in administrations Democratic and Republican alike, the EPA has been relentlessly ideological, politicized, corrupt, and incompetent.
When I joined the Food and Drug Administration in 1979, I was essentially apolitical and knew next to nothing about federal regulation. I was a science nerd who had spent the previous 16 years in college, graduate school, medical school, and postdoctoral training. It didn’t take long until I learned about the jungle of government bureaucracies, and one of the harshest lessons concerned the perfidy and incompetence of one of the FDA’s siblings, the EPA.
To my astonishment, I found that there were entire groups within the EPA whose function it was to lie to the Office of Management and Budget and to Congress about the rationale for and impacts of their proposed regulations. And over the years, I discovered that there is a kind of underground railway by which the most incompetent, disaffected, and anti-industry employees from other regulatory agencies find their way to the EPA, creating a miasma of dysfunctional governance.
During the two decades since I left government service, I’ve continued to watch the EPA’s shenanigans with a mixture of awe and vexation. Policy by policy and decision by decision, the EPA has decimated the nation’s competitiveness, ability to innovate, and capacity to create wealth. Its policies and decisions have single-handedly killed off entire once-promising sectors of biotechnology, including bioremediation (the use of microorganisms to clean up toxic wastes, including oil spills) and microorganisms that when sprayed on plants could prevent frost damage.
I saw firsthand evidence of this while I was an official at the FDA. For some reason I was favored with periodic reports of the research funded by the EPA. The overwhelming majority of it was shoddy, irrelevant, and unpublishable — but the grants bought the goodwill of researchers who would rubber-stamp unscientific EPA policies while serving on advisory committees.
The EPA is the prototype of agencies that spend more and more money to address smaller and smaller risks. In one analysis by the Office of Management and Budget, of the 30 least cost-effective regulations throughout the government, the EPA had imposed no fewer than 17 of them. For example, the agency’s restrictions on the disposal of land that contains certain types of wastes prevent 0.59 cancer cases per year and avoid $20 million in property damage, at an annual cost of $194 million to $219 million.
The EPA is the prototype of agencies that spend more and more money to address smaller and smaller risks.
Superfund (officially, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act) is one of the EPA’s greatest travesties. An ongoing program intended to clean up and reduce the risk of toxic-waste sites, it was originally conceived as a short-term project — $1.6 billion over five years, to clean up some 400 sites (by law, at least one per state and, not coincidentally, about one per congressional district). But it has grown into one of the nation’s largest public-works projects: more than $30 billion spent on about 1,300 sites.
How could cleaning up toxic-waste sites not be a good thing? Well, various studies have attempted to evaluate the impacts of Superfund’s massive and costly cleanups, but the results are equivocal. Putting that another way, after the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars, no beneficial results have been demonstrable. On the other hand, some Superfund projects have definitely caused harm. University of California–Davis economics professor J. Paul Leigh has analyzed the occupational hazards of environmental cleanup projects and concluded that the risk of fatality to the average cleanup worker — a dump-truck driver involved in a collision, or a laborer run over by a bulldozer, for example — is considerably larger than the cancer risks to individual residents that might result from exposure to untreated sites. EPA official Carl Mazza admitted that the agency is aware that Superfund policies often conflict with risk analysis, but “political considerations” prevent rational, data-driven decision-making.
Another example of flawed decision-making at the EPA is the imposition of overly stringent ambient-air standards under the Clean Air Act. Clean air is desirable, of course, but an EPA rule finalized in February 2012 that created new emissions standards for coal-fired and oil-fired electric utilities was ill-conceived. According to an analysis by Diane Katz and James Gattuso of the Heritage Foundation:
The benefits are highly questionable, with the vast majority being unrelated to the emissions targeted by the regulation. The costs, however, are certain: an estimated $9.6 billion annually. The regulations will produce a significant loss of electricity generating capacity, which [will] undermine energy reliability and raise energy costs across the entire economy.
Stung repeatedly by the responses to such benefit-cost calculations, the EPA has begun more often to manipulate the benefit side by invoking so-called non-use benefits of regulations, such as “the value one places on knowing that an aquatic ecosystem is healthy” or “secondary and tertiary ecosystem impacts.” The problem with such supposed benefits is that estimating them is highly prone to wishful thinking (read: plucking numbers from the air). For example, regulators might “calculate” that a significant improvement in water quality in the Mississippi River could be a source of benefit to people throughout the nation, not just to those who use the river or who live near it, because it is nationally symbolic.
An EPA subterfuge that has received attention from Senator David Vitter (R., La.) and other Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee is the “sue and settle” maneuver that the EPA uses to advance its radical environmental agenda by substituting a judicial mechanism for the customary interface of legislation and agency rulemaking. The way this works is that extremist environmental groups (some of which receive government grants) sue the federal government on the grounds that agencies are failing to meet their regulatory obligations, and then, behind closed doors, the activists and Obama-administration officials work together to concoct a settlement agreement that furthers activists’ (and regulators’) radical goals.Since it was created in 1970, the EPA has been a rogue agency — ideological, poorly managed, and out of touch with sound science and common sense. It is emblematic of what Wall Street Journal columnist Bill McGurn condemned as the “soft despotism” of the “unelected and increasingly assertive class that populates our federal bureaucracies and substitutes rule by regulation for the rule of law.”
The nation’s experiment with a free-standing environmental agency has failed. The EPA’s few essential functions should be relegated to less scientifically and ethically challenged agencies and departments. (It was, after all, created during the Nixon administration by cobbling together elements of various departments, including HHS, Interior, and Agriculture.)
Scott Pruitt may be the guy who could make that happen.
— Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA.