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Tr-Ash Talk: Setting the Record Straight

Several House members and right-wing bloggers believed they struck gold after House members indulged in a bit of chicanery at an April 15th Environment and Energy subcommittee hearing on a bill to remove EPA’s authority to establish strong coal ash regulations. The ruse started when Rep. Cory Gardner (R, CO) excerpted a single sentence from a 242-page Regulatory Impact Analysis prepared by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on its proposed rule to regulate disposal of coal ash.  

The excerpted sentence was displayed prominently on the hearing room monitor.  It read:

This [Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA)] does not include either qualitative or quantitative estimation of the potential effects of the proposed rule on economic productivity, economic growth, employment, job creation, or international economic competitiveness.

It was a “gotcha” moment for the Republican majority members present.  “EPA admits jobs don’t matter” was the story that immediately went viral. The problem is that the sound bites were nonsense. 

Simply reading the rest of the paragraph in the RIA—notably absent on the monitor—explains the quotation projected.  The simple truth, not nearly so entertaining, is that “jobs analysis” wasn’t required or necessary because the projected costs of the coal ash rule are so small. Following Office of Management and Budget guidance in effect since 1995, such an analysis is only conducted when the cost of a proposed rule reaches 0.25 to 0.5 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). To trigger an analysis, the rule’s cost would have to reach $36 billion to $72 billion of the 2008 GDP of $14.42 trillion.  

Yet the highest projected cost for EPA’s strongest proposed coal ash rule comes out to $1.4 billion, less than one tenth of one percent (0.0097 percent) of the GDP. If EPA had conducted “a qualitative or quantitative estimation of the potential effects of the proposed rule on economic productivity, economic growth, employment, job creation, or international economic competitiveness,” it would have been a meaningless exercise because the costs just won’t impact the economy in a measurable way.  Even if one takes the highest cost projected by the electric utility industry for the proposed rule—an annualized regulatory cost 3.7 times EPA’s estimate, that sum still does not come close to reaching the OMB threshold. In addition, it would have been contrary to the OMB guidance followed by Republican and Democratic administrations alike since 1995.

What the majority did not display on the screen was the following:

These other potential economic effects are excluded from this RIA because the upper-end of the range in average annualized regulatory cost across all regulatory options … does not exceed the 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) threshold identified in OMB’s 1995 guidance  for attempting to measure such other economic effects for purpose of  [Unfunded Mandate Reform Act] economic analysis compliance. Based on the 2008 US GDP of $14.42 trillion, the 0.25% to 0.5% threshold is equal to $36 billion to $72 billion.

Clearly this would not have been entertaining, nor would it have conveyed the inaccurate point that some politicians and corporations are trying so hard to get the government and public to believe.

Unfortunately this deceptive exercise didn’t shine a shred of light on the true problem of coal ash at the House hearing, undoubtedly to the disappointment of numerous citizens in the hearing room from West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Maryland, whose families and livelihoods are currently threatened by poorly regulated toxic ash. It’s time for Congress to move beyond using deceptive tactics to attempt to embarrass the EPA and perpetuate falsehoods. It's time for EPA to protect families and communities and stop the ongoing contamination of their drinking water from coal ash. It is time to start working to protect the American public.