A GOP assault on environmental regulations

Republicans in the House are best known for their inflexible opposition to tax hikes and government spending, but that’s nothing new for the GOP; what marks this group as different is that it is perhaps the most anti-environment Congress in history. So far, that hasn’t had much impact because Republicans control only one house, and Democrats in the Senate have blocked their most extreme attempts to gut the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. But recent legislative moves in the House provide a preview of what’s to come in 2013 if the balance of power shifts further in favor of a GOP that is more united than ever in opposition to environmental regulation.

Last month, the House approved HR 2401, which is ostensibly aimed at forcing the Environmental Protection Agency to examine the economic impact of its regulations. It would create an interagency panel to examine the cost — but not the economic benefits that come from improving public health — of new EPA rules, duplicating a function performed by the EPA and the Office of Management and Budget, which already study the costs and benefits of major regulations. More pernicious is that the bill would indefinitely block EPA efforts to reduce mercury, soot and other deadly pollution from power plants. And it rips the heart out of the 40-year-old Clean Air Act by requiring the EPA to consider not just scientific evidence that emissions harm human health when setting air-quality standards, but the cost of cleanup. Ultimately, this would compel the agency to set standards that don’t protect public health if they’re burdensome to polluters. If this irresponsible bill became law, it would result in tens of thousands of premature deaths yearly and add hundreds of billions of dollars to annual healthcare costs.

On Thursday, the House approved HR 2681, which would prevent the EPA from cracking down on emissions from cement kilns, a major source of mercury pollution. When ingested by pregnant women and children, mercury causes significant damage to developing brains. Up next is HR 2250, which is also widely expected to pass the House. It blocks the EPA from considering tougher standards against industrial boilers, another key source of mercury, lead and arsenic.

Republicans are correct that environmental regulations cost money, and sometimes those costs are passed on to consumers. Yet they are oblivious to the public-health consequences of pollution and the economic costs of inaction. There are a handful of Democrats in the Senate who agree with their shortsighted philosophy, so the demise of these three bills in the upper house isn’t certain, but President Obama has rightly threatened to veto all of them. The potential disappearance of that backstop after 2012 is a prospect that should worry anyone who breathes.