Posts tagged ‘Environmental Protection Agency’

Bootstrapping Regulatory Power

It used to be that the regulatory power of government agencies was delegated and specified by acts of Congress.  Now, it seems, they can just give themselves broad new powers

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to change how it analyzes problems and makes decisions, in a way that would give it vastly expanded power to regulate businesses, communities and ecosystems in the name of “sustainable development,” the centerpiece of a global United Nations conference slated for Rio de Janeiro next June.

 

Adverse Selection

From Radley Balko, this is just staggering:

Federal employees’ job security is so great that workers in many agencies are more likely to die of natural causes than get laid off or fired, a USA TODAY analysis finds.

Death — rather than poor performance, misconduct or layoffs — is the primary threat to job security at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Office of Management and Budget and a dozen other federal operations.

The federal government fired 0.55% of its workers in the budget year that ended Sept. 30 — 11,668 employees in its 2.1 million workforce. Research shows that the private sector fires about 3% of workers annually for poor performance . . .

The 1,800-employee Federal Communications Commission and the 1,200-employee Federal Trade Commission didn’t lay off or fire a single employee last year. The SBA had no layoffs, six firings and 17 deaths in its 4,000-employee workforce.

When job security is at a premium, the federal government remains the place to work for those who want to avoid losing a job. The job security rate for all federal workers was 99.43% last year and nearly 100% for those on the job more than a few years . . .

White-collar federal workers have almost total job security after a few years on the job. Last year, the government fired none of its 3,000 meteorologists, 2,500 health insurance administrators, 1,000 optometrists, 800 historians or 500 industrial property managers.

The nearly half-million federal employees earning $100,000 or more enjoyed a 99.82% job security rate in 2010. Only 27 of 35,000 federal attorneys were fired last year. None was laid off.

Forgetting for a minute the adverse selection and incentive problems from preferentially attracting folks who want to work in an environment without any accountability for performance, how can an institution that is running $1 trillion over budget not have any layoff either?

Hail Porkulus

Via the AZ Republic

10 of the 25 most lucrative stimulus-funded contracts for work inside the state were awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to one Alaskan company.

Bristol Environmental Remediation Services LLC, based in Anchorage, was not required to bid for the work, which is valued at more than $140 million and involves ground-pollution monitoring and cleanup at 10 Arizona sites, including San Carlos, Parker, Tuba City and Window Rock

Who wants to bet this company has had friends named Stevens and Murkowski?  What is it about Alaska?

As an added bonus, to my frequent point that regulation in general and our new emerging corporate state in general tend to favor large companies over small:

Tom Mertz is Tempe-based Sundt Construction Inc.'s federal division vice president, a position that has few counterparts among Sundt's smaller competitors.

Contracts funded by the federal government tend to favor larger companies such as Sundt, Mertz said, because there are additional steps involved in completing such a project, many of them involving protocol and paperwork.

"Federal-government work certainly is not for everyone," he said.

Sundt has landed both state and federal economic-stimulus projects, including one of Arizona's biggest, a $24.6 million contract to build federal-courthouse facilities in Yuma....

Mark Stapp, director of ASU's Master of Real Estate Development program and a longtime developer in the Valley, said that the problems smaller contractors encounter most often on public projects have little to do with the work itself.

"It's the administration of the work that kills them," he said.

As a result, many small and midsize contractors have avoided government-sponsored work, which adds to their current disadvantage now that the public sector is hosting the only game in town.

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

Today's word in question:  "safe"

The Environmental Protection Agency is holding public hearings today to review a proposed safe exposure limit for dioxin, a known carcinogen and endocrine disruptor produced as a common industrial byproduct.

It's all but impossible to avoid exposure to dioxin. Research done by the Environmental Working Group has shown that adults are exposed to 1,200 times more dioxin than the EPA is calling safe "” mostly through eating meat, dairy and shellfish "” and mothers pass it on to babies in the womb and in breast milk. A nursing infant ingests an amount 77 times higher than what the EPA has proposed as safe exposure. (Formula is also widely contaminated with the stuff.)

If you tell me that despite falling cancer incidence and survival rates and longer life-spans, we are all exposed to a chemical at 1200x its "safe" level, I might argue that we have defined the safe level too low.  Of course, the author draws just the opposite conclusion, arguing the standard needs to be tightened.

Two observations

  1. Things are getting better.  Apparently dioxin emissions (mostly from burning trash) have fallen by 90+% over the last twenty years.  In the blog post above, the author lambastes the EPA for dragging its feet on this standard for 30 years, but the lack of it sure does not seem to have been a problem

  2. I am not sure how setting a dioxin standard by the EPA is going to help.  Since most dioxin makes its way into the food chain (such as into dairy products), I suppose this would then give the government license to pound dairy farmers for the dioxin content of their products.  But what does this get us, and how is this the dairy farmers' fault?  For the last 30 years, as described at this site, the EPA and voluntary efforts by emitters have been working step by step through the pie chart above, knocking off the worst emitters.   You can see that clearly in the change of mix and the overall reduction.  This seems like a smart strategy.

We're All Safer Now

Via Alex Tabarrok:

New Environmental Protection Agency regulations treat spilled milk like oil, requiring farmers to build extra storage tanks and form emergency spill plans.

Local farming advocates says it's ridiculous to regulate a liquid with a small percentage of butter fat the same way as the now-infamous BP oil spill.

"It's just another, unnecessary over-regulation by the government just lacking any common sense," said Bill Robb, dairy educator for Michigan State University Extension...

The EPA regulations state that "milk typically contains a percentage of animal fat, which is a non-petroleum oil. Thus, containers storing milk are subject to the Oil Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure Program rule when they meet the applicability criteria..."

The Power to Say "Yes"

Bruce McQuain tells some stories of bureaucratic frustration in the Gulf, as local governors trying to protect their state from the spill fights against a myriad of mindless bureaucracies.

The governor said the problem is there's still no single person giving a "yes" or "no." While the Gulf Coast governors have developed plans with the Coast Guard's command center in the Gulf, things begin to shift when other agencies start weighing in, like the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's like this huge committee down there," Riley said, "and every decision that we try to implement, any one person on that committee has absolute veto power."

I would state the problem differently.  In the Federal bureaucracy, seemingly everyone has the power to say "no," and absolutely no one is willing to risk their career or even a minor bureaucratic sanction to over-rule when someone else in the room says "no."  I have seen it a hundred times in my business -- we will be close to doing something for the public, building a new shower building in a campground for example, and some government employee in the room will say that their sister's gynecologist's barber's housekeeper once overheard a conversation in a bar that some guy who may have visited a university once said he had heard a rumor that there might have been a Native American settlement somewhere within 100 miles of that spot 10,000 years ago -- and suddenly the work on the shower has to stop for 6 months while we all run around calling in archeologists and taking this concern seriously.

The problem  in a government discussion, particularly a multi-agency discussion, is that EVERYONE can say "no," and worse, since their incentives are loaded towards risk avoidance (they get punished for violating procedure, but never punished for missing an opportunity), they have a tendency to say "no" a lot, in fact to say "no" by default.  In the Gulf you have a thousand federal employees from 20 agencies whose entire incentive system, whose entire career, whose every lesson from every bureaucratic battle in a sort of long-term aversion therapy, prompts them to say "no" by reflex.

What is missing is someone who can say "yes," and make it stick against all the no's.  That does not have to be Obama -- but it probably does have to be someone very senior who knows (and who everyone else knows) is backed to the hilt by the President and has an incentive system where the only measure of success is more or less oil damage, and thus for whom aggrieved bureaucrats (even senior ones) and petty procedure are irrelevant.  It does not appear such a person has been appointed.

Postscript: By the way, I don't want folks to fall into the trap of thinking that these government folks are necessarily bad people.  I think that is a mistake both conservatives and liberals make -- conservatives vilify government employees, while liberals want to believe that government would work right if we just had the right people in it.   I work with a lot of very bright, very good people in government.  The problem is that their incentives and information are awful.  How would you behave if for 20 years your main feedback was to be criticized for violating minor procedures or trying new things?  How would you have any understanding of business if you grew up in the bizarro world of government budgeting and accounting?   This is the problem with government - not that it is full of bad stupid people, but it takes good smart people and incentivizes them do counter-productive things.

Update: Here is a great example, from Kevin Drum, who is a smart guy but can't do anything but dither in a decision among multiple risks:

It's pretty hard to take the other side of this argument [ie defending the Coast Guard's decision to hold up the GUlf cleanup barges for minor rules violations]. But I wonder. We are, after all, talking about barges that are sucking up oil, and the last time I checked oil was pretty damn flammable. Everyone wants the cleanup operation to proceed with breakneck speed, but that's exactly when people get tired and sloppy. And I wonder what everyone would think of the Coast Guard's ridiculous rules if they waived them and then some boat went up in a huge fireball because a spark caught somewhere and no one had a fire extinguisher handy?

I will say again - I have been in many rooms of bureaucrats, both federal and private, and they all think this way.  These rooms are full of Kevin Drum's wondering out loud, "I don't know, what happens if..."  This is such a common phrase in these meetings I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard it.  Then everyone in the room defers to this hypothetical risk.   Bureaucrats are always more worried about sins of commission  (e.g. knowingly allowing a barge to go out without enough fire extinguishers in violation of guidelines) than the sin of omission (e.g. delay will allow the spill to get worse).  Even when the omission is 100% certainty and the danger from the act of commission is vaguely hypothetical.  It takes a leader to say "send the damn barges out now."

More From the Science-Based Administration

Every study I have ever seen has said that corn ethanol is only marginally energy-positive when its growing and production costs are considered and barely breakeven on CO2.  In other words, it costs a lot and does nothing, even before one considers negative effects to food prices and land use.

So of course, the Obama administration may soon demand that we subsidize more of it

Burdened by falling gasoline consumption and excess production capacity, ethanol producers appealed to the government on Friday to raise the 10 percent limit on ethanol in most gasoline blends to as high as 15 percent.

Ethanol plants are closing across the country and some ethanol producers are declaring bankruptcy. The appeal will require the Obama administration to decide whether to increase federal support for the industry, which has already benefited from an array of subsidies, tax credits and Congressional production mandates.

"Approving the use of ethanol blends up to 15 percent is a necessary and positive step," said Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, an industry lobbying group, "to ensure the full potential of a robust domestic ethanol industry."

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department have been testing higher ethanol blends. The E.P.A. has nine months to review the request, but it could decide before that to increase the blend cap slightly, to 12 or 13 percent.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has indicated that he would favor at least a small increase in ethanol levels unless auto companies said there was a risk the change would damage their products.

At least the article is marginally honest - its starts with the true reason for the mandate - improving the bottom line of favored businesses, not energy or environmental policy.  Chu seems to be joining Krugman as another Nobel prize winner turned political hack.  In the past I have had Chu's supposed gravitas thrown at me in climate debates -- I think this should settle just how Chu makes choices between what science tells him vs. what politcal pressures are demanding.

Our Fault? Who, Us?

This is funny, in a depressing sort of way:

Twenty-four Republican senators, including presidential candidate Sen.
John McCain of Arizona, sent a letter to the Environmental Protection
Agency suggesting it waive, or restructure, rules that require a
five-fold increase in ethanol production over the next 15 years.

They make it sound like some weird EPA rule-making, but in fact the Senate, of which these folks are members, voted these provisions into law just 20 weeks ago.  Now, this is not a totally uncommon practice by lawmakers on the losing side of an issue to go to the administration to prevent enforcement.  And, in fact, I hope they are succesful.  But when the vote was taken 143 days ago, only 11 Republican Senators opposed the measure and one was a no-show for the vote (McCain).  So half of these 24 have buyer's remorse for legislation they voted for and on which the ink is barely dry. 

I have written on this enough, but ethanol makes no sense either as energy policy (it takes more energy to produce from corn than it provides) or as environmental policy (it does not reduce CO2 and causes ancillary environmental damage in terms of land and water use).  But Iowa is the first primary, and for some reason politicians just can't break the habit of pandering to Midwest farmers:

Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. analyst Kevin Book argued in a
recent note to clients that Congress will not "turn on the corn belt"
because of the significant number of votes held by ethanol-producing
states.