Is it time to get rid of the EPA?

When I joined the Food and Drug Administration in 1979, I was essentially apolitical and knew next to nothing about federal regulation. A science nerd, I had spent the previous 16 years in college, graduate school, medical school and post-doctoral training. It didn’t take long until I learned about the jungle of government bureaucracies. One of the harshest lessons concerned the perfidy and incompetence of one of FDA’s siblings, the Environmental Protection Agency.

I found EPA to be relentlessly anti-science, anti-technology and anti-industry. The only thing it seemed to be for was the Europeans’ innovation-busting “precautionary principle,” the view that until a product or activity has been definitively proven safe, it should be banned or at least smothered with regulation. In fact, during international discussions and negotiations over the harmonization of biotechnology regulations in which I participated, EPA often seemed allied with the European Union and committed to working against U.S. interests.

I was baffled by all this until I realized that EPA was a miasma populated by the most radical, disaffected and anti-industry discards from other agencies, and that because it was supposed to protect Americans from bad things — polluted air and water and dangerous chemicals, for example — there was entrenched institutional paranoia and an oppositional worldview.

During the ensuing three decades, in administrations Democratic and Republican alike, little has changed at EPA. The heads of the agency have ranged from the clueless to the corrupt. The current administrator, Lisa Jackson, seems unaware that regulation has costs, direct and indirect; that regulators should strive to limit the intrusiveness of oversight to the level that is necessary and sufficient; and that her agency has myriad deficiencies in both policies and personnel.

Policy by policy and decision by decision, Jackson and her colleagues (along with their counterparts at other regulatory agencies) have decimated the nation’s competitiveness, ability to innovate and capacity to create wealth. A recent analysis from the Competitive Enterprise Institute estimated that the annual cost of compliance with EPA regulations alone is more than a third of a trillion dollars.

It should hardly come as a surprise, then, that the Wall Street Journal/Heritage Foundation’s 2013 Index of Economic Freedom shows that the United States has slipped to tenth place, behind Chile and Mauritius.

Jackson’s EPA has been a job-killer. Unscientific and obstructionist policies toward once-promising R&D areas such as the use of genetically engineered bacteria to clean up oil spills and toxic wastes and kill insect pests have caused academics and companies to abandon entire R&D sectors that could have created jobs and wealth, possibly even America’s Next Big Thing.

Some of the most onerous policies introduced on Jackson’s watch include stricter gas-mileage standards, an increase in the amount of ethanol in gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent and more stringent ambient air standards under the Clean Air Act. Particularly damaging was an EPA rule finalized in February 2012 that created new emissions standards for coal- and oil-fired electric utilities. According to an analysis by Diane Katz and James Gattuso of the Heritage Foundation, “The benefits are highly questionable, with the vast majority being unrelated to the emissions targeted by the regulation. The costs, however, are certain: an estimated $9.6 billion annually. The regulations will produce a significant loss of electricity generating capacity, which [will] undermine energy reliability and raise energy costs across the entire economy.”