EPA Magic: Regulation by Illusion

In response to the Supreme Court’s review of EPA’s mercury rule, the agency issued a supplementary notice indicating that “consideration of cost does not alter the agency’s previous conclusion that it is appropriate and necessary to regulate coal- and oil-fired electric utility steam generating units (EGUs) under section 112 of the Clean Air Act.” Essentially, EPA is saying that costs don’t matter because of its assessment of the hazards associated with mercury.

In the supplementary notice, EPA presents information on estimated benefits compared to costs. As Susan Dudley, director of George Washington University’s Regulatory Studies Center, points out the Agency’s calculation of benefits is “is dominated by ancillary benefits that are not subject to its authority under Clean Air Act section 112”. But, the reality is worse than that. EPA, under this Administration, has gone to great lengths to create illusions of health benefits associated with its regulations. The co-benefits of the mercury rule are supposed to be reductions in premature deaths and improvements in children’s health, primarily ozone related illnesses. Premature deaths, which are calculated by computer modeling, and ozone health effects are co-benefits because they are related to reductions in other pollutants that are already controlled by EPA.

The direct benefits are the alleged cardiovascular impairment and decreases in children’s IQ levels associated with mercury exposures. While the health effects of high levels of mercury exposures are well known, the effects from exposures to trace levels are illusory. In addition, power plants are not the main sources of exposure to mercury, natural sources like forest fires and volcano eruptions are.

US emissions of mercury are 2%-3% of the global total and about one-half of those come from power plants, Since the 1990s, blood mercury levels have been decreasing. A report by Master Resource concluded, “The scientific literature to date strongly and overwhelmingly suggests that meaningful management of mercury is likely impossible, because even a total elimination of all industrial emissions, especially those from U.S. coal-fired power plants, will almost certainly not be able to affect trace, or even high levels of MeHg that have been found in fish tissue over century-long time periods”.

This raises two questions. First, if the EPA rule is not based on the best available science, why is it being pursued? It is just another part of the Administration’s war on fossil fuels, especially coal.

The second question is how could EPA get results that bear little relationship with reality and peer reviewed science? By creating its own reality through the use of models. In 2014, a former EPA scientist, Robert Caprara, wrote about his experiences. When he presented analytical results to his supervisor, he was told to “sharpen my pencil.” By revising assumptions, changing equations and the like, he was able to get the “right” answer. He came to the conclusion, “that my work for the EPA wasn’t that of a scientist, at least in the popular imagination of what a scientist does. It was more like that of a lawyer. My job, as a modeler, was to build the best case for my client’s position”.

Manipulating model assumptions and equations also is the means for the stated reduction in premature deaths and detrimental impacts on children’s IQs. EPA assumes a reduction of between 6800 and 17000 premature deaths. According to the CDC, there are about 900,000 premature deaths each year. EPA’s claim that its rule will reduce that number by between 0.01% and 0.02 percent is not credible. There is no epidemiological methodology that permits that kind of precision. Further the CDC states, “there is no consensus on a functional definition or the best means of deriving a quantitative measure.”

Models are important analytical tool if used properly. If not, they can be used to show that the world is flat or any other conclusion that a user prefers, which is what has been demonstrated about this EPA. Time and again, EPA justifications for regulations have borne little connection to reality. Illusions are the foundation. EPA science has become like magic; it only appears real.

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