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POWER’s Peltier: MACT’s Missing Intellectual Justification

“EPA’s politically appointed leadership believes that the perversion of science is a ‘minor evil’ committed to achieve the ‘greater good’ of ridding the nation of coal-fired power generation. Science may be the first casualty in the EPA’s war on coal, but all of us are its victims.”

- Robert Peltier, “MACT Attack,” POWER, July 2012, p. 6.

Robert Peltier is no ordinary participant in today’s important energy debates. He is editor-in-chief of POWER magazine, which covers all technologies relating to electricity. He is a professional engineer with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. Peltier in a previous life was a tenured professor. He has worked in manufacturing and for a public utility. And before that, he was a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy.

It is his job to study the technological possibilities with an eye to competitive viability in electric generation. When examining regulation—past, present, or proposed—he considers the peer-reviewed literature as well as personal opinions to get to the essence of things.

Utility Mercury and Air Toxics Standards

Enter the  recent Utility Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (Utility MACT) rule issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the subject of Peltier’s ‘Speaking of Power’ editorial in the July 2012 issue of POWER. It is worth reading in whole.

Utility MACT is the most recent skirmish in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) war on coal. It is based on flimsy scientific evidence of actual health effects and again demonstrates the agency’s indifference to conducting rigorous scientific inquiry.

Ends justifying the means is not science but the opposite.

The Utility MACT Rule established the first-ever maximum achievable control technology (MACT) standard for the emissions of hazardous air pollutants from coal-fired power plants. Understanding how the EPA developed its scientific justification for the rule meant wading through dozens and dozens of highly technical reports.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) performed that onerous task for us and has published a comprehensive analysis of the EPA’s scientific basis for the rule. Its new report, “All Pain and No Gain: The Illusory Benefits of the Utility MACT” (press release here)  is available on the CEI web site.

Indeterminate Health Benefits

The health effect studies by the EPA are based on that portion of atmospheric mercury that lands in bodies of water and ends up in aquatic food chains. The EPA’s December 2000 “appropriate and necessary” determination, the trigger for the MACT Rule, determined from computer modeling that 7% of the pregnant women in the U.S. have blood mercury concentrations exceeding the EPA’s reference dose (the “safe exposure level”) of 5.8 ppb.

The reference dose is one-tenth the benchmark dose of 58 ppb, the mercury level associated with any health effects. Interestingly, the highest level found in any woman mentioned in any of the Center for Disease Control’s epidemiological studies was 21 ppb.

The EPA’s modeling predicted that there are 240,000 prenatally exposed children born to women in the U.S. each year who live “in subsistence fishing households [and] consume enough methylmercury in self-caught fish to impair fetal cognitive and neurological development” (italics mine). That sounds like a lot, but the mothers of those 24,000 children, who received doses of mercury sufficient to produce a benchmark dose (58 ppb), exist only “in the EPA’s computer models,” not in real life.

Facts are often stubborn and unyielding. “In the 22 years since the Clean Air Act tasked the EPA to study the health risks of mercury, and the 12 years since EPA published its ‘appropriate and necessary’ determination, the agency has not identified” a single child whose learning or other disabilities can be traced to prenatal mercury exposure caused by coal-fired power plants.

The EPA also must show a causal connection between the benchmark levels of mercury in the blood stream and specific health effects to justify rulemaking. Lacking examples in the U.S., the EPA turned to epidemiological studies of people in New Zealand, the Faroe Islands, and a 20-year study of children in the Seychelles. In sum, “none of those children was learning disabled, or cognitively abnormal in any way, despite having mercury exposures many times greater than those of most American children,” and the effect on IQ was indeterminate.

Despite the results of these studies, the EPA determined, again through computer modeling, that the rule will avert the loss of 511 IQ points, which translates into 0.00209 IQ points for each of the estimated 24,000 prenatally exposed children in the study group. Psychologists will tell you that the standard error of a typical IQ test is 3 points. The EPA computers then translated that miniscule loss in IQ into the present value of lost lifetime earnings—$0.5 million to $6 million. To suggest that IQ can be calculated to five decimal places is ludicrous, but to then suggest that there is a direct relationship between IQ and lifetime earnings at such small increments of IQ borders on the absurd.

High Cost of MACT

There are many other discrepancies in the science used by the EPA to justify the MACT Rule, such as the agency’s reliance on co-benefits, particularly removal of fine particulates (particulates are regulated under a different rule). If the industry’s estimate of $98 billion of added costs is accurate, the cost/benefit ratio of the MACT rule is wildly out of proportion and scientifically unjustified. Many other scientific and technical problems with the EPA’s mercury analysis are discussed in the CEI report, including pages of references to each of these studies.

One final problem with the EPA’s basic analysis of mercury requires mention. The EPA’s estimate of the amount of mercury discharged into the environment from power plants, and used in the rulemaking, was 46 tons in 1990 (about 18% of mercury from all sources). The amount was projected to rise to 60 tons a year in 2010. Instead, only about 48 tons were discharged in 2010 and 29 tons were discharged in 2011—more than 50% below the EPA’s estimate.

The End Game

Niccolo Machiavelli (b. 1469) is best known in the West for The Prince, a book that describes the politics of power, particularly how a new prince should wield power to build an enduring political structure. In the book, Machiavelli writes, “I shall do a minor evil to achieve a greater good.”

It’s clear to me that EPA’s politically appointed leadership believes that the perversion of science is a “minor evil” committed to achieve the “greater good” of ridding the nation of coal-fired power generation. Science may be the first casualty in the EPA’s war on coal, but all of us are its victims.

6 comments

1 Jon Boone { 07.23.12 at 11:16 am }

Machiavelli also stated: “Men are so simple and so much inclined to obey immediate needs that a deceiver will never lack victims for his deceptions.” Moreover, he declaimed that “Princes and governments are far more dangerous than other elements within society.”

2 Jonathan { 07.23.12 at 11:20 am }

Wow, here goes another letter to Senator Ben Cardin. My assumption is that he’ll again thank me for my support on gun control or some other unrelated item.

3 Marlo Lewis { 07.23.12 at 11:33 am }

My thanks to Robert Peltier and Rob Bradley for spotlighting CEI’s UMACT study. Alas, Senator Jim Inhofe’s resolution of disapproval to overturn the UMACT Rule failed by a vote of 46 to 53.

Despite wide circulation of our paper and the amazing scholarship of NERA’s Ann Smith (http://republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/Media/file/Hearings/Energy/20120208/HHRG-112-IF03-WState-ASmith-20120208.pdf), few of the resolution’s supporters challenged the EPA’s hype about mercury and PM2.5.

Air pollution alarmism remains the anti-energy crowd’s rhetorical strong suit. Sen. Boxer, for example, thought it was sufficient to name the scary pollutants emitted by power plants to clinch the argument: “When I mention them, just the names will scare us because they are names such as arsenic and formaldehyde—not good.” She continued: “The mercury is getting into fish. People are getting sick. That is why this is such a dangerous moment if we were to pass this [resolution] and stop the EPA from doing this.” As Robert noted, in the 22 years since Congress directed the EPA to study the health risks of mercury, the agency has not identified a single child whose learning or other disabilities can be traced to his or her mother’s consumption of mercury-contaminated fish.

Perhaps the worst example of air pollution demagoguery was Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s rant last year against Sen. Inhofe’s amendment to rein in EPA’s climate regulations. Lautenberg argued as if one word — “asthma” — were enough to justify the EPA’s hijacking of fuel economy regulation and enactment of greenhouse gas controls Congress has not approved and would reject if put to a vote (http://www.globalwarming.org/2011/04/18/did-the-senate-definitively-reject-efforts-to-rein-in-epa-a-commentary-on-lautenbergs-rant/).

Unscientific arguments ‘work’ not only because most people are ‘rationally ignorant’ of the relevant science but also because activists and regulators have been pushing air pollution alarm for decades.

To win these debates, friends of affordable energy must devote more resources to educating the educators (i.e. policymakers and opinion leaders) about air pollution levels, trends, and risks. As a modest contribution to that effort, I post here the link to Joel Schwartz and Steve Hayward’s excellent 2007 book, Air Quality in America (http://www.globalwarming.org/2012/06/18/air-quality-in-america-you-can-find-it-here/).

4 Ray { 07.23.12 at 3:01 pm }

The EPA has been lying from its establishment and they continue to lie. For example, the EPA declare DDT a class A carcinogen and banned it. There was no evidence to support that. The simple fact is that nobody knows what causes cancer. Go here, next to last paragraph. http://training.seer.cancer.gov/disease/war/

5 Robert Bradley Jr.: POWER’s Peltier: MACT’s Missing Intellectual Justification | JunkScience.com { 07.24.12 at 12:11 am }

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6 tadchem { 07.24.12 at 8:23 am }

The EPA is staffed by people appointed by politicians for political reasons. The EPA management and administration levels are nearly devoid of scientific expertise. Advanced degrees in natural or physical sciences (those sciences answerable to empirical validation) are rarer than business expertise and experience at the CEO/CFO level at both EPA and elsewhere in this Administration.

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