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Dust Storm

Republicans surpass their own environmental absurdity.

The GOP’s favorite punching bag right now is a government regulation that doesn’t exist. “Our goals include ... overturning the EPA’s proposed regulations that inhibit jobs in areas [such as] farm dust,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor wrote in an August Washington Post op-ed. There was no such proposed rule. “We’ll stop excessive federal regulations that inhibit jobs in areas [such as] farm dust,” House Speaker John Boehner similarly pledged in a September 15 speech to the Economic Club of D.C. Still, there was no such proposal. “The EPA has gone wild,” candidate Herman Cain said at the September 22 GOP presidential debate. “The fact that they have a regulation that goes into effect January 1, 2012, to regulate dust says that they’ve gone too far.” Naming a specific date was a nice touch of verisimilitude. But it couldn’t call into being a pending regulation that didn’t exist.

In October, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson raised the stakes. Previously, there had been no proposal to regulate farm dust. Now Jackson stated that there would be no such rule in the future. In an October 14 letter to Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, Jackson wrote, “I am prepared to propose the retention—with no revision—of the current PM10 standard.” PM10 is bureaucratese for “coarse particles” smaller than ten micrometers in diameter. Bits of soot or dust. This is what the GOP means when it says “farm dust,” though PM10 also emerges from smokestacks, fireplace chimneys, volcanoes, automobile exhaust pipes, and demolition sites. The GOP response to Jackson’s pledge was the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011, which cleared the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power on November 3 by a vote of 12-9.

On the surface this is another example of reality-free wingnuttery, like Rick Perry’s ill-advised flirtation with birtherism. And it’s certainly that. But the GOP’s farm-dust demagogy also illustrates the bad faith with which Republicans lure Democrats into substantive engagement over policy.

When I was an environmental reporter for The Wall Street Journal in the mid-’90s, the Republican Congress wanted to subject new regulations to cost-benefit analysis and incorporate more epidemiological evidence into the rule-making process. The epidemiological standard was stricter than extrapolation from animal experiments, a more common basis for regulation at the time. The GOP’s pro-business motive was clear, but it was hard to argue with the notion that rules should use better science wherever possible and recognize a hierarchy of risks. Republicans liked to say Washington would do better wasting less effort on regulating Superfund sites, asbestos, you name it, and spending more effort regulating airborne particles of soot and dust (“particulates”), which new epidemiological research said posed a greater health hazard than previously believed. When George W. Bush entered the White House, he hired John Graham, director of the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Risk Analysis, to run the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). Graham took heat from environmentalists for being pro-business, but he made stricter particulate regulation a priority.

That was then. In March 2011, Jackson testified before the House Committee on Agriculture that the EPA was required under the Clean Air Act to review its particulate standards and that she did not yet know what the review would conclude. She acknowledged that farmers were worrying about the prospect of stricter PM10 regulation, and suggested that her agency sought neither to penalize agriculture nor cut it any special breaks. The following month, the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards (OAQPS) issued a report recommending “either retaining or revising” (that is, tightening) the PM10 standard. The wording was tentative because evidence of the health risks posed by PM10 was less certain than evidence of the health risk from PM2.5 (“fine particles,” smaller than 2.5 micrometers). The report also noted that the farm lobby had been trying for years to get a special exemption for rural PM10, and had been rebuffed by the Bush EPA and in federal court. The EPA saw no reason to change course. Thus was born the farm dustup.

The existing PM10 standard, which will remain unchanged, was created in 1987 during the presidency of that rabid environmentalist, Ronald Reagan. Is farm dust regulated under it? Barely. The federal government sets standards and, in trying to meet those standards, a few states have required farmers to engage in “best management” practices such as wet spraying, not working fields when it’s windy, and setting speed limits on unpaved roads. Even if there were no health considerations, these would be sensible ideas, because airborne dust isn’t particularly good for crops or farm equipment. And anyway, farm dust doesn’t appear to be much of a problem except in a few very dry places like California and Arizona. The EPA has installed comparatively few air monitors in rural places (as compared with urban ones), so violations attributable to farm dust are typically recorded only when a wind storm blows dust to an urban area. The farm lobby would like such occurrences to be exempt from regulation. What has been portrayed as a ludicrous power grab by the EPA is in fact a case of special pleading by industry—which is the definition of American agriculture in the twenty-first century.

Republicans love to holler that overregulation is strangling the economy, but the Obama administration actually issued fewer regulations, and also fewer major regulations, during its first two years than the Bush administration issued during its last two. On January 18, Obama issued an executive order requiring expanded use of cost-benefit analysis in proposing regulations and reexamination of previously issued regulations that might be excessively burdensome or obsolete. And the current head of OIRA, Cass Sunstein, is a longtime advocate of cost-benefit analysis. There was, BusinessWeek reported in 2009, “huge relief” in the business community when Obama picked Sunstein to run OIRA, and he’s given it little reason to complain.

There is no pending EPA rule governing farm dust. An existing 24-year-old regulation prompted a few states to require farmers to manage their land a little better. And the pace of regulation has slowed since Democrats retook the White House. Anything else you hear from the GOP is just air pollution.

Timothy Noah is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 1, 2011, issue of the magazine.