Environmental Protection Agency officials have stalled for two years on providing Congress and the American people with the scientific evidence — peer-reviewed studies, analytical papers and databases — that would justify regulations targeting the coal industry. The regulations have forced more than 100 coal plants to shut down, and have made it all but impossible to construct new coal-fired power plants despite rising energy demand. Since coal-fired plants generate nearly half of all the electricity used in the U.S., the EPA regulations add significantly to other upward pressures on electricity rates across the country.
On Aug. 1, House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas got tired of waiting and roused the panel to issue its first subpoena in 21 years, seeking scientific materials that then-assistant EPA administrator Gina McCarthy had promised to provide the committee in September 2011. “The EPA's lack of cooperation contributes to the suspicion that the data sets do not support the agency's actions,” Smith said.
There are solid reasons for being suspicious of the EPA’s claims about peer reviews and public comment periods. Peer reviews mean little when everybody involved is funded by an administration conducting a “war on coal.” And public comment periods are all but useless when conducted away from areas of the country most affected by the agency’s regulations.
Both flaws are evident in the EPA’s regulatory process on coal-fired power plants. Public comment sessions were held in cities nowhere near coal country. New York City, Seattle, Chicago and Denver all had listening sessions, but no sessions were held in major coal states like West Virginia or Kentucky.
Rather than provide all of the documents sought by Smith’s committee, McCarthy, who now heads the agency, told lawmakers on Nov. 14 that the “EPA estimates that programs implemented pursuant to the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 avoided 160,000 premature deaths, millions of cases of respiratory problems such as acute bronchitis and asthma attacks, 45,000 cardiovascular hospitalizations, and 41,000 hospital admissions.”
That sounds great, but the improvements McCarthy attributed to EPA regulations may not have been the result of the agency at all, as McCarthy had to concede when challenged on the point. Moreover, her data was generated “during a period of economic growth; between 1970 and 2012, the gross domestic product increased by 219 percent,” she admitted.
The EPA has provided some studies to Congress, but several are highly suspect, according to the Capital Research Center. A Harvard analysis, for example, claimed small increases in fine particulate matter like dust caused higher death rates. The same study's correlations, however, didn't apply to highly educated individuals or residents of Western states, meaning the study didn't effectively account for external factors.
Further, the same study found lower death rates from respiratory failures among individuals with higher concentrations of particulates. The study doesn't explain how greater concentrations could be less harmful than lower ones. The shortcomings of the studies lead to one conclusion: The EPA is more interested in politics than science.