Oral arguments began last week on another controversial Obama Administration policy. It’s not Obamacare in the Supreme Court, but the outcome will affect a major sector of the economy: energy. In particular, the fuel most Americans use daily.
At issue is the administration’s continued abuse of science at the agency level in an effort to dictate what type of energy we use.
The Environmental Protection Agency has fast-tracked the approval of a 50 percent increase in the amount of ethanol that can be mixed into the fuels we use in our cars and other engine-run vehicles, such as boats and snowmobiles. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with such a major increase in ethanol, (from 10% to 15% total,) but the law requires and common sense dictates that the EPA test the new fuel mix in all engines in which it would be used, to make sure it works properly and doesn’t damage the engines. The lawsuit alleges that EPA failed to properly do so in approving use of so called E15 fuel.
For example the EPA only evaluated E15’s impact on automobiles’ emissions systems, rather than how it affects the entire car, “bumper to bumper,” as Charles Drevna, President of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, a lead plaintiff, put it in a recent interview with the trade publication Energy and Environment News.
Perhaps even more troubling, according to Drevna, is that the EPA’s “testing didn’t come in until the day before they announced, or they published the regulation.” There’s simply no way the testing could have been fully considered (as required by law) in the next day’s rule-making, not even if the bureaucrats stayed up all night before filing the paperwork.
The rush to approve a new type of fuel is especially striking given the administration’s otherwise hyper-risk-averse approach to regulation in general and energy regulation in particular. Just consider the administration’s precautionary approach to the Keystone pipeline, where more than three years of studies and far more safeguards than the law required still weren’t enough for the administration to approve the plan. Yet when it comes to decisions about a fuel source that the president considers to be “green-energy,” the rules change and caution is thrown to the wind turbine.
This is not how science-based regulatory decision-making is supposed to work.
Q: What type of science did the EPA really use to quickly approve the high-ethanol fuel mix?
A: Political science.
Although we don’t fully know the effect that the high ethanol fuel will have on engines, (because the EPA didn’t do a thorough assessment) we do know that preferential treatment of corn-based ethanol would be a boon to the president’s electoral chances. Increasing the amount of corn used to fuel our engines will significantly increase demand for corn. Not only will the price of ethanol increase, but the cost of corn we use for food, animal feed, and all sorts of other important consumer uses will rise as well. Iowa, the president’s home state of Illinois, and other corn-belt states are crucial to President Obama’s re-election strategy. Giving a free-ride to ethanol is sure to curry favor in the Corn Belt.
But vote-winning politics rarely makes for good public policy. Hasn’t the administration learned anything from the Solyndra debacle? The lesson was supposed to be that the government shouldn’t be using its muscle, be it taxpayer dollars or rule-making authority, to choose energy winners. That is a decision for consumers to make.
Sure, there’s a proper role for the EPA here. But the people, through congress, granted the EPA authority to regulate these matters to protect the environment, not the president’s electoral chances.
While the legal issues being argued next week may be technical, the abuse of regulatory power should be plain for all to see. We’ve got an administration that drags its feet on regulatory matters related to one disfavored energy source, while giving preferential treatment to a favored fuel source from an electorally critical region. When politics displaces science at a powerful agency such as the EPA it is an abuse of regulatory powers. The same types of allegations had critics howling at the Bush EPA. Yet here the critics are silent. Why? If it isn’t just politics, perhaps it is because of the faulty perception that ethanol is a safe, green, renewable energy source with no downside, risks or unintended consequences.
Just as the Obamacare case is renewing interest in not only the constitutional issues, but the public policy considerations of the healthcare law, the E15 case being heard this week should prompt us to ask the administration why it continues to abuse its regulatory powers for political purposes and picking winners in the energy sector.