At the EPA, environmentalism isn’t a ‘spectator sport’

Sandra Fabry Freelance Writer
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Lisa Jackson’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is at it again. Already having been called out on flawed science for its ground water studies in Wyoming in the fight over the practice of hydraulic fracturing, the agency is now clashing with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which charges the EPA with meddling, as the agency seeks to increase federal oversight of the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation believed to hold the largest reservoir of natural gas in the U.S.

This new degree of involvement in state regulatory affairs shows once more that Jackson wasn’t kidding when she quipped on “The Daily Show” last year that “environmentalism isn’t a spectator sport.” Just how serious she was has become evident in the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline project connecting the oil sands in Alberta, Canada with American refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.

As the pipeline crosses an international border, the Keystone XL permitting decision rests with the State Department, leaving the environmental left very “uncomfortable.” In spite of the fact that the State Department produced two separate environmental impact statements over three years of intensive review involving 10 federal and various state and local agencies, Jackson’s EPA flexed its muscle under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Throwing a wrench into the process, it called each of the State Department studies “inadequate,” thus prompting further review.

Some believe the president, having only recently declared that “We Can’t Wait” on job creation, would have genuinely liked to approve the project, which also had the support of many labor unions due to its estimated job benefits. Ultimately, however, political calculus trumped policy.

Having already disappointed the environmental left with his failure to push through cap and trade, the president appears to have crossed an invisible green line by rejecting EPA chief Jackson’s proposal to tighten national smog standards last fall. White House officials were warned in private “that the pipeline permit decision had become even more significant,” while donors threatened to abandon the president’s re-election efforts. Attempting to placate environmentalists, the administration first sought to put off a decision until after the election. However, when put on the spot by Congress, the president not only rejected the project in January, he even actively lobbied U.S. senators to kill last week’s Keystone XL amendment, thus increasingly inviting the question of who is serving whom.

As Robert Samuelson has written, the president’s decisions have “no redeeming virtues and — beyond the symbolism — won’t even advance the goals of the groups that demanded it.” The effort to derail Keystone XL may go beyond the actual pipeline, and be “part of a broader effort to stop the expansion of the tar sands.” However, stopping Keystone will not change the resolve of the Canadian government to develop tar sands. Without the pipeline, environmental risks may in fact increase, as Canada may ship its oil-sands petroleum elsewhere via tankers. The obvious losers: U.S. energy security and American workers. While the job creation figure associated with Keystone XL may be subject to dispute, it is clearly in the thousands at a time when every job counts.

Unfortunately, the flexing of the EPA’s job-killing muscle is not an isolated incident. Reviewing the EPA’s permitting process for surface mining in the Appalachian region, a fall 2011 report by the EPA inspector general found that less than a third of the 185 permit applications identified had been approved. Almost half of them took 731 days to review — 587 days longer than EPA’s claimed average evaluation period of 144 days. A Chamber of Commerce-commissioned study, which found that the NEPA process impeded 351 private sector infrastructure projects in 2011, put a sobering price tag on the delay-and-cancel practices — $577 billion in lost investment and the destruction of 1.9 million jobs. Meanwhile, the EPA continues to be a lead contributor to the steady stream of new federal regulations, many of which harm job creation.

However, current interventions may pale in comparison to what the EPA has up its sleeve. Embracing Jackson’s notion of environmentalism not being a spectator sport, the agency appears to be preparing for a vast “EPA power grab”: a scheme to unilaterally — by claiming authority under NEPA, and without congressional approval — expand its regulatory powers under the guise of a vague “sustainable development” agenda, based on an EPA-commissioned study conducted by the National Academies of Science.

Even the president’s own Council on Jobs and Competitiveness — while acknowledging environmental concerns — recently made clear that the “jobs and economic and energy security benefits of […] energy projects require us to tackle the issues head-on” and that we need to “expeditiously, though cautiously, move forward on projects that can support hundreds of thousands of jobs.” However, with an election around the corner, and the likes of Lisa Jackson increasingly holding the reins, don’t hold your (EPA-regulated) breath.

Sandra Fabry is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. Focusing on state and federal spending, accountability, and regulatory issues, she previously served as the executive director of the Center for Fiscal Accountability, which has recently been rebranded as the Cost of Government Center at Americans for Tax Reform.