Air Pollution at Oil Refineries

by Dave Kopel

The common sense era at the Environmental Protection Agency was supposed to have begun quite a while ago. Every few months, President Clinton and EPA Director Carol Browner announce that they were "Reinventing Environmental Regulation." From now on EPA will stop imposing regulations with astronomical costs and minimal benefits. But in truth, nothing is changing.

A case in point is EPA's current effort to impose extremely expensive new air pollution regulations on already-regulated oil refineries, for essentially no environmental benefit. The new rule, by EPA's own estimates, would impose costs of $400 million dollars over the next five years, and would drive seven refineries out of business.

And what are the benefits of this new rule? In terms of what the rule is supposed to do--reduce emissions of "Hazardous Air Pollutants" such as benzene--the benefit would be "minimal," according to EPA. The major reason is that emissions of benzene--and all other air pollutants from oil refineries--are already strictly regulated, and have been for decades.

EPA argues that the new rule would also reduce "Volatile Organic Compounds" (VOCs) which help cause excessive ozone build-up (commonly known as "smog"). But EPA is cheating. First of all, EPA knowingly uses obsolete air quality and refinery emissions data. Second, smog reduction would come even without the EPA crackdown on oil refineries, since comprehensive ozone programs are already being implemented by the states, as required by the Clean Air Act. The state programs, unlike the EPA's blunderbuss, are carefully focused to remedy the precise problems of particular areas.

Besides, smog is only a problem in a few urban areas, yet EPA's rule applies everywhere. Thus, the Big Spring refinery, the largest employer in Lubbock, Texas, would be forced to close, laying off 260 employees, even though ozone is no problem at all in Lubbock.

Even the Department of Energy, not usually a foe of big government, has criticized EPA's oil refinery rule as imposing "high costs and few benefits."

And what actual health benefits will we get for hundreds of millions of dollars in increased gasoline costs, and thousands of lost jobs? By assuming that people spend seventy years living 150 feet from the center of oil refineries, and by refusing to take into account the improved refinery equipment that has come into use in the last 15 years, and by assuming that all refineries as bad as the two worst refineries in the United States, EPA claims that the crackdown on refineries would prevent one cancer every three years in the entire United States.

Even if we accept this very dubious reasoning, and even if we assume that protection of health is the only important goal--costs be damned--the EPA rule is still a net loss for human health. When seven refineries are forced to close (and the entire rest of the oil refining business is saddled with huge additional costs), thousands of people will be thrown out of work. Plenty of them--when they finally do find a new job--will not be able to find one that pays a worker with relatively little formal education as well as oil refineries do. Job losses and huge pay cuts translate very directly into increased alcoholism, domestic violence, inability to pay for medical care, depression, and many other health problems.

Unfortunately, junk science is routine at EPA. EPA has forced public schools to divert hundreds of millions of education dollars into a worthless campaign to remove inert, non-dangerous asbestos from school buildings. (As if students were inhaling the asbestos in floor tiles.)

In 1982, EPA booted the residents of Times Beach, Missouri out of their homes; years later, EPA admitted that it goofed, and that there was no reason for the town's 800 families to have been evacuated.

Under the EPA "Superfund" program, businesses must scrub the ground at their facilities so clean that the dirt, literally, would be appropriate for an orphanage housing sickly toddlers with a voracious appetite for dirt. Superfund got started out of the "Love Canal" fiasco in New York; years later, it turns out, there was no health risk, and no scientific reason why the Love Canal families had to be driven out of their homes.

On hot-button issues like second-hand smoke and dioxin, EPA ignores its own scientific research, and sends out press releases with hysterical claims about deadly peril from stray molecules.

While EPA's behavior won't win it any common sense awards, the ultimate blame lies with Congress, which in 1990 passed a revised Clean Air Act propelled by good intentions and pious rhetoric, but hopelessly vague about exactly how its noble rhetoric was supposed to be achieved, and at what cost. As with most environmental laws, Congress people awarded themselves the credit, while leaving EPA to bear the wrath of the businesses ruined and the people thrown out of work.

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