Friday, October 08, 2010

When environmental regulators get it wrong

The San Francisco Chronicle has story about how regulators crafting the state's clean-air standards made some major mistakes that cost businesses millions of dollars as they had to revamp their emissions.
California grossly miscalculated pollution levels in a scientific analysis used to toughen the state's clean-air standards, and scientists have spent the past several months revising data and planning a significant weakening of the landmark regulation, The Chronicle has found.

The pollution estimate in question was too high - by 340 percent, according to the California Air Resources Board, the state agency charged with researching and adopting air quality standards. The estimate was a key part in the creation of a regulation adopted by the Air Resources Board in 2007, a rule that forces businesses to cut diesel emissions by replacing or making costly upgrades to heavy-duty, diesel-fueled off-road vehicles used in construction and other industries.

The staff of the powerful and widely respected Air Resources Board said the overestimate is largely due to the board calculating emissions before the economy slumped, which halted the use of many of the 150,000 diesel-exhaust-spewing vehicles in California. Independent researchers, however, found huge overestimates in the air board's work on diesel emissions and attributed the flawed work to a faulty method of calculation - not the economic downturn.

The overestimate, which comes after another bad calculation by the air board on diesel-related deaths that made headlines in 2009, prompted the board to suspend the regulation this year while officials decided whether to weaken the rule.
That's not the only problem with the regulators' estimates.
One of the major recent problems was an air board estimate of premature deaths caused by particulate matter spewing from diesel engines. The first calculation found 18,000 deaths a year in the state had links to particulate matter. That has been revised down by nearly half.

The revision was ordered after the board scientist who oversaw that study was outed as having faked his scientific credentials.

Roberts and other board members were not told by Nichols that the scientist, Hien Tran, lied about earning a doctorate from UC Davis before they voted in favor of regulations based in part on his science. That vote took place in December 2008.

Nichols, who acknowledges she knew about the falsification prior to the vote, has apologized for not sharing that information with her fellow board members.
How typical. A board member knew that the guy was a liar, but didn't think it was worthwhile to let the rest of the board know before they adopted stringent regulations based on the guy's research. I guess she was going on the "fake, but accurate" approach to environmentalism.

All these errors from the scientists translate into lost jobs as businesses strain to meet the requirements. And more is headed California's way if they don't call a halt.
The setbacks in the air board's research - and the proposed softening of a landmark regulation - raise questions about the performance of the agency as it is in the midst of implementing the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 - or AB32 as it is commonly called, one of the state's and the nation's most ambitious environmental policies to date.

AB32, which aims to reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020, has come under intense political attack this year as the state prepares to elect a new governor. Critics cast the law as a jobs killer because of the expenses to industry and businesses in conforming to new pollution regulations. Supporters say it will reinvigorate the state's economy and create thousands of new jobs in the emerging green sector.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has promised to suspend the law for at least a year, while Democrat Jerry Brown supports the law. California voters, meanwhile, will vote on Proposition 23, a November initiative to suspend AB32 until the unemployment rate - now at 12.4 percent in California - falls to 5.5 percent or less for a year.
It's going to be a long, long time before California has an unemployment rate to 5.5%. Perhaps that will give the regulators time to get their calculations right.

Meanwhile, just look at the mistakes made by the EPA and NOAA in handling the BP oil spill.
Neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had "adequately planned" for the possibility that massive volumes of dispersants could be required to break up the oil. The EPA had not considered the possibility that dispersants would be used beneath the surface. The NOAA, meanwhile, had not evaluated the effects of large-scale use of dispersants on marine life.

Lacking adequate planning, officials were forced to quickly make "difficult choices with insufficient information about the critical trade-offs ... for the use of dispersants."

Still, despite the speed the response demanded, the EPA waited until late June before dispatching a senior official to the Unified Command headquarters in Louisiana to monitor the daily decision making on use of the dispersants.

Fuzzy math
The initial government estimate of 1,000 barrels a day appears to have been based on a figure supplied by BP, "without supporting documentation."

In the spill's second week, when the estimate rose to 5,000 barrels a day, the calculation appears to have come from "an unsolicited, one-page document" e-mailed to the Coast Guard from an NOAA scientist. There is no indication that the scientist had expertise "in estimating deep-sea flow velocity from video data or that he used an established or peer-reviewed methodology when doing so." The scientist made clear his figure was a "rough estimate," but put it forward to "warn" officials that the flow rate was four times greater than originally figured.
Yet we're told over and over that such scientists and regulators are pure of heart and capable of writing regulations that will affect our entire economy from health care to the environment to financial regulations. Does anyone have true faith anymore in their ability to manage control over our entire economy from their desks in Sacramento or Washington?