Does anyone remember President Obama’s executive order requiring that regulations be justified and not unduly burdensome? It would be hard to find a better example of the vast gap between requirement and reality than in Michigan v. EPA, before the Supreme Court Wednesday, March 25.
At issue is the EPA’s new nationwide rule slashing mercury and other emissions that would put coal- and oil-fired power plants in the cross-hairs of what industry representatives describe as the EPA’s “most costly rule” ever under The Clean Air Act. Unfortunately, the very political “science” behind the EPA’s claim of far greater benefits than the 10-digit annual compliance costs comes nowhere close to justifying the policy.
Power plants emit only a tiny fraction of the mercury released into America’s air. The EPA reported that in 1995, total U.S. emissions from all human activity (158 tons) was about 3 percent of all mercury released to the air from all sources (5,500 tons). And power plants are only part of that total. Eliminating so little mercury will not save many thousand lives, as the EPA asserts. But it will dramatically raise the cost of coal-powered electricity.
Perhaps most troubling has been the EPA’s use of selective science to transform small effects into massive benefit claims. For example, it ignored the fact that CDC surveys show blood mercury levels for American women and children falling and already below the levels found safe by both the EPA and FDA, and well below the standard set by the World Health Organization.
The EPA could have used evidence from a University of Rochester study of the Republic of the Seycheles, whose residents consume types of fish — the primary “carriers” of methylmercury from atmospheric deposition to humans — similar to American diets. But the Center for Science and Public Policy found that the study of high-dose exposure, which followed the same children from six months to nine years of age, found “no observable health effect effects associated with fish consumption in which methylmercury is present.”
Instead, the EPA based its criteria on a study of Faroe Islanders. Not only do they eat more fish, their diets include a great deal of pilot whale meat and blubber. That gives them not only far higher doses of mercury, but also of PCB. Further, they ingest little selenium (which limits conversion to methylmercury), or fruits and vegetables. Given that in epidemiology, one of the most basic rules is that “the dose makes the poison,” their circumstances are virtually irrelevant to Americans. As the Center for Science and Public Policy concluded, “The Faroe Islands study should not be the sentinel study upon which assessment of methylmercury inake via should be gauged.”
The proposed EPA mercury restrictions on power plants, despite a massive PR campaign to the contrary, would have very small effects on human exposure to mercury, at a very high price. And there is no need for a nationwide command and control “solution.” The EPA has found that only “between 1 and 3 percent of women of childbearing age (the group of most concern) eat sufficient amounts of fish to be at risk from methylmercury exposure.” And the FDA and most states already issue advisories for citizens to limit their intake of contaminated fish.
Mandating massively expensive policies on everyone is not justified because a small fraction of women of childbearing age are potentially at risk from mercury ingestion, out of fear some of them may not sufficiently heed existing warnings. That is particularly so when there is so little evidence that substantially higher exposures than in America impose measurable damage. Rather than being “justified and not unduly burdensome,” the EPA mercury rule is unjustified and punitively burdensome.
Gary Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University