Hoover Daily Report

Environmental Protection, in Name Only

Monday, December 18, 2000

Federal regulations costing Americans approximately 700 billion dollars annually seem as inevitable as death and taxes. All regulations, however, are not created equal. Some are reasonably cost-effective and serve society well; others are so wrongheaded and expensive that they are actually detrimental to society.

Regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been criticized for being inefficient and unscientific. When the Office of Management and Budget analyzed the cost-effectiveness of a panoply of regulations throughout the federal government, of the thirty least cost-effective regulations on the list, seventeen had been imposed by the EPA. This impression of inefficiency is reinforced in an analysis by Washington, D.C. based Resources for the Future (RFF) of eight major EPA regulatory programs of the past two decades. RFF concluded that the science behind the policy often gets distorted or ignored: “EPA for a variety of reasons is unwilling, unable, and unequipped to address and acknowledge the uncertainties in the underlying science.”

The courts have often had to rein in or educate EPA officials. In May 1999, for example, a federal court ruled that the EPA’s new air-quality standards were arbitrary and capricious and had to be revised. In May 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to rule on whether the EPA’s policy of deliberately disregarding the cost of its regulations is required by the Clean Air Act. A public policy research institution and forty prominent economists argued persuasively in an amicus brief that the EPA should “consider explicitly the full consequences” of regulatory decisions, including costs, benefits, and any other pertinent facts.

Perhaps the most systematically egregious EPA policies have been those applied to biotechnology. The agency has been consistently at odds with scientific consensus about biotechnology's risk, choosing to focus on the most precise and predictable techniques of biotechnology while ignoring genuinely hazardous products. These policies have been a drag on innovation of products that are particularly environmentally friendly. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, for example, the EPA focuses regulation on gene splicing—the most precise technique of the new biotechnology—an approach that has halted research into microorganisms engineered to clean up oil spills and toxic wastes.

EPA regulations have also inhibited research on new plant varieties that require fewer applications and lesser amounts of agricultural chemicals. The agency requires the testing as pesticides of gene-spliced crop and garden plants that have been modified for enhanced pest and disease resistance. This policy imposes extensive and expensive regulatory requirements on field tests of gene-spliced cotton plants that have increased resistance to insects, for example, but exempts plants with virtually identical traits that were engineered by cruder, less-predictable hybridization techniques. The scientific community has repeatedly condemned the EPA’s approach.

Many of the EPA’s regulatory programs are unscientific and afford little or no protection to human health or the environment. They have unacceptable costs and divert resources from other legitimate endeavors. They breed well-deserved cynicism about the government's motives. Often, the only environment that benefits is that of the bureaucrats themselves.