Would Susan Collins' Regulatory Time-Out Act Really Block the Boiler MACT?

by Ben Somberg

September 13, 2011

Senator Susan Collins announced last week the “Regulatory Time-Out Act” (S. 1538), which would put a one-year moratorium on most “economically significant” regulations. On Monday, she said she had 16 other Senators on board – all Republicans. So while I’m not under any illusion this is going anywhere, one point jumped out at me for discussion.

One of Senator Collins’ top targets in the past year has been the boiler MACT rule, which would require certain facilities to reduce their emissions of mercury, soot, lead and other pollutants that harm our health. At first glance, it appears this bill would serve to delay the boiler MACT rule even further than it already has been. (How a 12-month delay, starting presumably sometime during the current 10-month delay, adds up to being the exact right fix is anyone’s guess, and it’s also not clear how this would reduce “uncertainty.”)

But consider this. Collins’ press release says: “The moratorium would not apply to rules that address imminent threats to human health or safety or other emergencies, or that apply to the criminal justice system, military or foreign affairs.”

It may have been meant as a throw-away line to make the bill sound more reasonable. But the proposed boiler MACT, in its most recent form, would prevent 2,600 to 6,600 deaths per year. Are 2,600 to 6,600 preventable deaths each year caused by pollution from industrial boilers not an imminent threat to human health? How many more people would need to die for it to be an imminent threat to human health?

The press release goes on to say:

Within 10 days of the effective date of Senator Collins’ “Regulatory Time-Out Act,” agencies must submit to OMB and to Congress a list of rules which they believe are exempt.

The EPA, of course, would have to stick up for itself. But having a debate over whether 2,600 to 6,600 deaths per year is an “imminent threat to human health” is one the agency ought to be happy to have, and one Collins and her industry allies surely fear. They have spent many months talking about the costs of regulations, trying to sideline any discussion of their benefits. This could be one of those instances where they should be worried about getting what they say they want.

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