An old saying often attributed to Mark Twain is, “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” Listening to the conflicting information presented by a variety of senators during a hearing on Capitol Hill Sept. 29, one has to wonder if Twain was covering a Senate hearing when he penned the phrase.

The only witness at the Environment and Public Works (EPW) committee hearing titled “Economy-wide Implications of President Obama’s Air Agenda” was Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Office of Air and Radiation. McCabe was on hand to answer questions about the Clean Power Plan and the EPA’s proposal to update the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ground-level ozone. However, senators quickly got on their soapboxes and began promoting their own agendas.

Polls

Before questioning began, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) presented three polls for entry into the hearing record: a Harvard University poll, a Bloomberg poll, and a Gallup poll.

Inhofe said that the Harvard poll of young Americans ages 18 to 29 found “young Americans are often unsupportive of government measures to prevent climate change that might harm the economy.” He noted that less than 30% of respondents agreed with the statement: “Government should do more to curb climate change even at the expense of economic growth.”

According to the Bloomberg poll, taken after the Roman Catholic pope’s visit to the U.S., Inhofe noted that only 33% of people surveyed agreed that the pope should be “chastising those who deny a human connection to climate change.”

Lastly, Inhofe said that in Gallup polls taken years ago, global warming used to rank near the top of respondent’s concerns. However, he said, “now, out of 15 concerns that people have in the most recent Gallup poll, the very last—number 15—is climate change.”

When it was Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (D-Calif.) turn to question McCabe, the senator presented two polls of her own: an American Lung Association poll and a New York Times/Stanford poll.

Taken two weeks ago, Boxer said the American Lung Association poll showed that 73% of respondents supported stronger ozone standards. According to Boxer, the New York Times/Stanford poll found that 77% agree that the federal government should be doing a substantial amount to combat climate change.

“We now have dueling polls in the record and people can decide which one is right,” Boxer said.

Inhofe countered, “The Gallup poll is recognized as the accepted poll more than a particular group that’s looking at the one issue.”

Benefits of Ozone Regulation

Rather than debate the issue, Boxer moved forward with questioning. She asked McCabe about the “benefits of reducing smog pollution and the costs of not protecting people.” McCabe noted that about 23 million people in the U.S. have asthma, 6 million of which are children.

“Ozone pollution affects the respiratory system. It can exacerbate or bring on an asthma attack. It can cause other respiratory symptoms, even in healthy adults, especially when they are outdoors and exercising,” McCabe said. “When we bring ozone levels down, we reduce asthma attacks, we reduce visits to the emergency room, we reduce missed school days, we reduce missed work days, [and] we reduce the costs that are associated with those.”

Boxer said that since the Clean Air Act (CAA) was enacted 40 years ago, the national gross domestic product (GDP) has risen 207%. She said the total benefits of the CAA amount to more than 40 times the cost. Boxer then referred to a 2010 speech by Lisa Jackson based on an EPA study.

“In 2010 alone, this particular source has said, reductions in fine particle pollution and ozone pollution achieved by the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, avoided more than 160,000 premature deaths, avoided 130,000 heart attacks, prevented millions of cases of respiratory problems, like acute bronchitis and asthma attacks, 86,000 hospital admissions, prevented 13 million lost workdays, avoided 3.2 million lost school days due to respiratory illness and other diseases,” Boxer said.

During his allotted time, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) presented a paper issued by the Center for Regulatory Solutions written by Karen Kerrigan titled “Five Things You Should Know Before the Senate EPW Hearing on EPA’s Ozone Proposal.” According to Wicker, the paper addresses the American Lung Association poll—previously mentioned by Boxer—noting that once costs were added to the equation, support for the EPA ozone proposal plunged.

“When asked if they would be willing to spend $100 more per year, roughly half of the support vanished,” Wicker said. “When informed that the study actually estimated that [a] stricter ozone standard would cost $830 per year, a majority of voters opposed the EPA’s plan outright.”

Wicker also said that a number of experts have suggested that the proposed reduction to the ozone standard will not have any effect on asthma. Citing the words of Roger McClellan, former chairman of the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, Wicker said “For well over a decade, asthma cases have increased by millions while ozone concentrations have declined.”

Costs

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) questioned McCabe on how EPA regulations would affect the cost of energy for low- and middle-income consumers.

“According to studies, under this plan in our state of West Virginia, the cost of energy will rise somewhere between 17% and 22%,” Capito said, citing a study conducted by NERA Economic Consulting, which was commissioned by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).

McCabe said the numbers did not jive with EPA estimates.

“We found that by 2030, the average cost of a person’s electric bill would go down by about 7% as a result of increased energy efficiency that we see coming into the system,” McCabe said. “So even though electricity prices might go up a little bit, bills will actually go down.”

The NAM study suggests that an ozone standard of 65 ppb could reduce U.S. GDP by $140 billion per year. The EPA, however, estimates that the cost to reach 65 ppb would be about $1.6 billion in California and another $15 billion throughout the rest of the country.

“The economic consulting firm Synapse recently analyzed the NAM report and found it—and I’ll quote them here—‘grossly overstates compliance costs due to major flaws, math errors, and unfounded assumptions. Among other things, NAM significantly inflated the emissions reductions needed to meet the 65 parts per billion standard through a series of unfounded and skewed assumptions. These assumptions and other flaws led NAM to overstate compliance costs by more than 700%,’” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said.

Whitehouse asked McCabe what the track record of industry claims was concerning the costs of health standards adopted under the CAA.

“We have often heard on the eve of a regulatory change that there would be significant economic impacts, and over time, of course, we have seen that has not been true,” McCabe replied. “Air quality has improved, public health has improved, and the economy has also improved.”

Aaron Larson, associate editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine)