Quit Digging

An old adage about life is that when you are in a hole quit digging.  With trust in government at an all time low, actions that further erode trust and credibility are just more examples of keep on digging.  The Wall Street Journal recently reported a case of EPA doing exactly that.

It is no secret that the Obama Administration has a war against coal and is using the boom in natural gas to pursue it.  EPA has issued new performance standards that impose a 1,100 pound limit per megawatt hour on carbon emissions.  The problem with this standard is that the most modern coal fired plant emits at least 1800 pounds.  Since there is no know technology for limiting emissions to the new limit during combustion, utilities will have to remove carbon before it is released into the air.  The only way to do that is to employ experimental carbon capture and storage technology which has not yet been demonstrated to work on the scale required by utilities or to be commercially viable.

That fact creates a problem for EPA because the Clean Air Act requires that EPA demonstrate that required technology be “adequately demonstrated” on a commercial scale and at a reasonable cost.  According to the Journal, EPA achieved an impossible act by falsifying the literature and experience of carbon capture and storage.

How did the agency do this?  By using bureaucratic legalese and contortions with the plain meaning of the english language as well some form of social intimidation to obtain support for its rule.   Some forms of group action and pressure used to achieve cohesion produce what Irving Janis termed Group Think and Group which leads to bad decisions.

A  sub-committee of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) had doubts about the technical feasibility of carbon capture and storage and observed that EPA’s justification was speculative studies and models from DOE showing that sequestration works.  EPA assured the sub-committee that the DOE studies had been carefully reviewed by “industry experts, academic and government research, and regulatory agencies.”  Upon further inquiry, it turned out that the peer review was conducted by the EPA staff.  That hardly meets the accepted standard for peer review.

None the less, when the full SAB met, it retreated and “tabled a vote on the working group’s recommendations.”  That is where Group Think comes into play.  According to Janis, Group Think is “concurrence-seeking as a form of striving for mutual support based on a powerful motivation in all group member to cope with the external or internal stresses of decision making.”  Conformity, which means stifling dissent, is achieved by playing to the desire to be accepted and to avoid group sanctions for not conforming to a group’s desires.  Remaining part of a prestigious group like the Science Advisory Board can lead to intellectual surrender and in the case of the 1,100 pound limit probably did.

The fact that the Wall Street Journal has blown the whistle on EPA may lead others to put EPA justifications for other ideological decisions it has made to constrain the use of fossil fuel under a microscope and expose them to disinfectant of sunlight.

Unfortunately, this example of putting ideology ahead of the law is just one more justification for growing public distrust of its government.  Distrust, cynicism, and loss of credibility, if not reversed, will have even more corrosive effects on our system of government.


This article appeared on the FuelFix website at http://fuelfix.com/blog/2013/12/26/quit-digging/

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