A Sky Full of EPA Bureaucrats

IAmJohnBurnett-headshotA Sky Full of Bureaucrats

Will the EPA’s new rules actually save the ozone?

Writing in the Wall Street Journal recently, political scientist Charles Murray confronted readers with the reality of the modern regulatory state and raised a pointed question: How do myriad rules help us when they often cannot be measured or enforced?

Murray’s liberal detractors should know that he is not on a crusade to jettison regulatory policies that have made our country safer, cleaner and fairer. But he does wonder if every word on each of the 175,000 pages of the 2013 Code of Federal Regulations is beyond scrutiny.

Require sturdy structural supports in tunnels in coal mines? Sure. But do we really need federal guidance on what kind of latch to put on a flour bin at a bakery?

Just as important as the proliferation of regulations is that, once on the books, regulations are more or less set in stone. Murray noted that while federal courts are empowered to overturn regulations that are “arbitrary,” “capricious” or an “abuse of discretion,” they rarely do so.


The consequences of fossil fuels.

The consequences of fossil fuels.


It is worth reflecting on Murray’s essay within the context of new rules for ground-level ozone that President Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency has proposed. The EPA wants to make the current 75 parts per billion more stringent – to 65-to-70 parts per billion. The new rules are slated to be finalized by Oct. 1.

Ground-level ozone is linked to an array of ailments, some serious. So we all benefit from reducing the chemicals that come out of tailpipes, smokestacks and equipment used on the farm that cause ozone levels to rise, particularly in the hot, sunny days of summer.

But the question arising from this is simple: Do the EPA’s new rules accomplish this at a time when ground level ozone has declined by nearly 20 percent in the past 15 years and is set to drop further?

Despite public and private efforts and the innovative work of engineers and scientists, about 40 percent of the U.S. population lives in areas unable to meet the 2008 air quality standards that the EPA previously put in place. In addition, only 675 of the nation’s 3,000 counties have ozone monitors currently in place.

And so whether these and other areas will meet the new, stringent standards is an open question. More than that, whether the EPA will be able to gauge the success of the standards is unclear. EPA will rely on computer models and other subjective tests to assess whether the standards are being met – and not on actual on-the-ground measurements.

The irony for Democrats is that the new standards pushed by Obama’s EPA will have an especially large impact on metropolitan areas that already have the most difficulty meeting the current standard. Political and governmental leaders in these areas are disproportionately Democrats and their communities would be most likely hurt by curtailed economic activity that is likely to result from the new standards.

In fact, the National Association of Manufacturers has issued a report that asserts the rules would be the most costly federal regulation ever issued. Its costs would be in excess of $140 billion per year, as manufacturing, construction and farm work is curtailed. Businesses and local governments will have to comply with hard-to-measure and even harder-to-attain standards or risk losing federal highway funds.

In short, these regulations don’t even make political sense, particularly in an election cycle.

Murray noted that EPA has effective jurisdiction over every piece of property in the country but conducted only 18,000 inspections in 2013. Its job is already more than the agency can handle.

And so, in his new book, “By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission,” from which his essay was derived, Murray recommends setting up two frameworks to confront this entrenched empire of regulators, a legal foundation and an occupational defense fund. Both would be voluntary, private entities to pool resources to assist individuals in fighting back against harassment by red tape-wielding zealots.

For now, nothing like that exists. Instead, we will just have to wait and see what happens when the new ozone rules are imposed and enforced. Layering on more rules before the current ones can be followed is bound to have a cost: fewer jobs and slower economic growth.

The mindset of a bureaucracy that stipulates how to describe flower bulbs to customers – an actual example Murray provided – is at work with the new ozone rules. And so the danger is that we find ourselves with far fewer jobs five years from now, even if the new rules leave us with just as much ozone as we have today.


[Originally published in US News & World Report, June 1, 2015 and reprinted with permission of the author.]

John Burnett is a financial services executive with over 20 years of experience in risk management, operations, governance and compliance at some of the world’s top financial services and business information companies, such as Citi, McGraw-Hill Financial, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley. Follow him on Twitter: @IamJohnBurnett.

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