Environmental judge, jury & policeman

Marlo Lewis Jr. is a senior fellow in the energy and environment program at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank advocating limited government. Lewis spoke to the Trib regarding the Obama administration's environmental mandate to significantly reduce sulfur levels in gasoline.

Q: Is there a genuine environmental need for stricter sulfur standards?

A: I don't believe so. We've basically seen a 60-percent reduction in emissions since 1980, air pollution levels are at their historically lowest levels, and over the last nine years we had a reduction in the sulfur content of gasoline from 300 parts per million down to 30. The Environmental Protection Agency is like a lot of government agencies — it always assumes that it must go further. And you know, in fact, it has to assume that, otherwise it would no longer have a reason to exist. If it declared that the air pollution threat was over and we can relax now, what more need would there be for an EPA?

Q: What's the cost of implementing this lower sulfur level?

A: One of the groups that did an analysis, Baker & O'Brien, estimated $10 billion in (refinery) capital outlays and then another $2.4 billion a year in (industry) compliance costs. Q: Will the effect on consumers be dramatic?

A: The EPA says this will increase gasoline prices by a penny a gallon. The oil refining industry is saying it could be anywhere from 6 cents to 9 cents a gallon. But I think the one thing that's clear is that gasoline prices are already really high, over $4 a gallon in most markets. If this were a world of unlimited resources, yeah, we could afford to spend $10 billion to chase that last molecule of air pollution. But it's not. People are already feeling the pinch with $4-a-gallon gas. We have high unemployment rates. This is happening at the worst possible time.

Q: As opposed to saving lives, would you say the intent of this new regulation is to save jobs — particularly jobs at the EPA?

A: That's a good educated guess. The EPA has a terminal case of mission creep. We are on to another topic then, but that's a good way to understand the greenhouse-gas regulation agenda. It will take a hundred years to de-carbonize the global economy, so if that's your new job at EPA, you know your grandchild can also have a place to work.

Q: Do you believe there eventually will be calls for even stricter standards?

A: With the EPA, (regulations never are) stringent enough. My bottom line on the EPA problem is broader than just the EPA — it's generic to our entire regulatory process. The EPA is the same agency that makes the scientific determinations that trigger regulation, and then gets to write the rules, enforce the rules and punish infractions of the rules. So it's a massive conflict of interest that's built into the regulatory process by our statutes. It's not the EPA's fault that it's caught in this conflict of interest. But it pretends to be and sells itself to the public as an objective analyst and representative of the science, whereas it's the principal interested party in every regulation that it promulgates.

Q: Do you consider the agency sort of a regulatory judge, jury and executioner?

A: “Executioner” may be a little pungent. (Call it) judge, jury and policeman.