Editor’s Notebook: 230,000 reasons to get an EPA story right

David Martosko Executive Editor
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The idea that the Environmental Protection Agency might hire as many as 230,000 new bureaucrats to staff a regulatory regime related to greenhouse gases is, without question, a shock to the system.

So it’s almost forgivable for professional Obama administration defenders and reflexive EPA protectors to scream that it ain’t so.


On Monday we published a news story by Daily Caller reporter Matthew Boyle about this. Matthew reported that the EPA had found itself in the odd position of admitting that new regulations (as written) would force it to hire those 230,000 new federal employees — at an astonishing annual cost to taxpayers of $21 billion — in order to boost the number of greenhouse gas “polluters” it polices from 14,000 to a whopping 6.1 million.

Our news story was well reported, carefully sourced, and solidly written. Despite the criticisms that some have offered, we haven’t changed a word. Wednesday evening, Oklahoma GOP Sen. James Inhofe weighed in, supporting our report.

The source material

Matthew based his piece on a 161-page brief that the EPA filed in federal court on September 16. It’s probably not fair to summarize a lengthy, nuanced legal argument in a few paragraphs, but you’re welcome to read the whole thing if it suits you.

In a nutshell, when the EPA won the right to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, it turned into a much bigger job than anyone expected. So the EPA argued that it should be allowed to follow a “Tailoring Rule” in order to “phase-in” the plan by regulating only the biggest greenhouse-gas emitters first, before moving on to regulate others whose emissions are more modest (but still above the “statutory threshold” for regulation).

The agency was in court to ask a court for permission to do this. It’s presumably the only way the EPA can avoid the $21 billion hiring spree we wrote about — one that its own lawyers said would be an “absurd” outcome.

The fly in the ointment is that this “Tailoring Rule” may also be absurd, since it doesn’t seem to comply with the Clean Air Act. That law doesn’t allow the government to pick and choose which global-warming “polluters” to regulate and which to leave alone. So we may have an all-or-nothing scenario in which the EPA’s hands are tied, and so are taxpayers’.

And even if EPA manages to convince a court to make an exception, it seems committed to regulating everyone — at the full $21 billion cost — at some point down the road. “[T]he Tailoring Rule,” EPA writes in its brief, “is calculated to move toward eventual full compliance with the statutory threshold.” EPA adds that it intends to get there “as quickly as possible.” At present, the EPA is under a deadline to get it done by 2016.

The reactions

Two organizations seem to have reacted the most rashly to our reporting: Media Matters for America and Mother Jones magazine.

Both, it must be noted, are on the far fringe of left-wing thought. And both, whether by accident or on purpose, seem to have misread the EPA’s court filings.

It’s entirely expected and thoroughly ordinary to find fringe activists on both sides of the political aisle twisting both science and the law for their desired political result. (Yes, Mother Jones is published by the Foundation for National Progress, a left-wing advocacy organization.)

What’s less ordinary — or should be — is for otherwise thoughtful journalists working for real news organizations to jump on their bandwagon uncritically. We saw this, regrettably, with Politico and The Washington Post. Dave Weigel, the Slate blogger who was a Washington Post employee until the “Journo-list” debacle hit the fan in 2010, declared without so much as a tiptoe through the facts that we “[got] the story wrong.”

The bottom line

To his absolute credit, Post blogger Greg Sargent ran our clarifying response almost immediately. Politico’s Dan Berman, however, ignored the factual basis of our argument, which I shared with him on the phone Tuesday night. (He published his story all of 18 minutes later.)

We don’t expect to hear from Weigel. He snarked Wednesday on Twitter that “The Daily Caller employs 230,000 fact-checkers at a cost of $21 billion” — and later deleted the tweet after Conn Carroll at The Washington Examiner published a thoughtful analysis of his own that agreed with ours.

“[I]n their own words,” Sen. Inhofe wrote Wednesday evening, “EPA will, in fact, regulate even the smallest sources and the nightmare scenario that Congressman John Dingell once called a ‘glorious mess’ will ensue. That could come as soon as 2016. Yet all this is completely missing from Politico’s fact check-and the results are indeed absurd.”

“Bottom line,” The Washington Examiner’s Carroll added, is that “even the Obama administration admits it would cost $21 billion to regulate carbon using the Clean Air Act.”

Which is what we’ve been saying since Monday.

David is The Daily Caller’s executive editor. Follow him on Twitter