The newly elected Republican majority in the US House of Representatives is poised to sharply curtail the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to issue new environmental regulations and enforce existing rules.
The anti-regulatory fervor is reminiscent of Republican efforts in the mid-1990s, spearheaded by former Representative Tom DeLay, Republican-Texas, who, to his everlasting shame, called EPA the "Gestapo of government." In private life, DeLay owned an exterminating business and reportedly ran for office because of his anger over EPA regulation of DDT.
DeLay wanted to repeal the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, which among other provisions required the production of reformulated gasoline, drastically cut the EPA budget and prohibit enforcement of standards for vehicle emissions and toxic discharges from refineries.
A decade and a half later, the long knives are out once again. John Boehner, Republican-Ohio, who was sworn in as House Speaker last week, has endorsed a one-year freeze on new regulations. A moratorium would send a "wonderful signal to the private sector that they're going to have some breathing room," Boehner said.
The Republicans can attempt to cripple the agency by denying it funds to run its programs. They also promise to tie the agency in knots by launching investigations of agency rulemakings, requiring EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and other officials to spend long hours before House committees.
The immediate target is regulations to control greenhouse gases and Representative Fred Upton, Republican- Michigan, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said GHG emissions are "just the beginning." Upton said he plans to question Jackson so often that he will guarantee her a permanent parking space on Capitol Hill.
Darrell Issa, Republican-California, chairman of the oversight and government reform committee, is promising to wield his subpoena power to investigate a host of perceived misdeeds of an administration that Issa, without any particular proof, has already decided is "one of the most corrupt ever." He also reassured a group of Pennsylvania Republicans last summer that corporate America won't have to "live in fear" of his subpoenas.
Issa has written more than 150 companies, think tanks and trade associations - including the American Petroleum Institute and the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association - asking for a list of existing and proposed regulations that would harm job growth. It's an echo of the coalition of industry lobbyists DeLay put together to draft a moratorium on federal regulations.
The country's major environmental laws - the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Oil Pollution Act, and the Toxic Control Substances Act -- were enacted because industry, in the normal course of business, was poisoning the nation's waterways, despoiling the land, polluting the air and endangering the health of millions of Americans.
US oil and natural gas industry expenditures for reducing emissions to air, water and land between 1998 and 2008 totaled $174.8 billion (in reality, a small percentage of overall industry profits), according to a survey of companies undertaken by the American Petroleum Institute. A majority of the investments, $92.4 billion, was driven by the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act.
API did not provide data on industry's environmental expenditure prior to 1990, and in the absence of similar environmental regulations there is little reason to believe industry would have come close to matching the post-1990 expenditures.
Critics focus on the cost of environmental regulations, but those costs are dwarfed by the benefits. According to the Office of Management Budget, the estimated annual cost of major Federal regulations from 1999 to 2009 was between $43 and $55 billion. The estimated annual benefits were between $128 billion and $616 billion.
From Newtown Creek to Deepwater Horizon, from Nigeria to Ecuador and beyond, the record where is replete with examples of the dire consequences of no regulation, under-regulation, company negligence and misconduct, and lax oversight. In its zeal to "rein" in the EPA, House Republicans runs the risk of sacrificing the public good in the service of private interests.