EPA’s Power Mower Power Grab

Posted: Oct 19, 2006 12:02 AM
EPA’s Power Mower Power Grab

Nine years ago, I predicted that lawn mowers would one day fall victim to onerous and unnecessary EPA air pollution standards, despite Clinton EPA administrator Carol Browner having stated in sworn testimony to Congress in 1997 that such regulations are "not about outdoor barbecues and lawn mowers." Frank O'Donnell, then-executive director of the Clean Air Trust, called talk of regulating lawn mowers "crazed propaganda."

Today, however, EPA openly seeks implementation of pollution standards for lawn mowers that would supposedly cut smog-causing emissions by 35 percent. As for O'Donnell, he's now president of Clean Air Watch where he's working hard to implement that "crazed propaganda."

So what else is new? The EPA and green groups lie because they're on a mission: Where you might see a freshly-mowed lawn, they see an opportunity to extend another regulatory tentacle.

But the EPA's clean air standards are based on false claims and shaky science.

Lawn-mower emissions comprise perhaps 3 percent of all EPA-monitored air pollutants, according to the agency's National Emissions Inventory. Meanwhile those overall emissions are less than half of what they were in 1970. Thirty-five percent of 3 percent of 50 percent of what we breathed a generation ago is essentially equivalent to a hair on a flea's leg. A small flea.

But the EPA and greens persist in making spectacular-sounding but misleading claims, including that lawn mowers produce 93 times more smog-forming emissions than automobiles. They derive this figure by using an absurd per-hour comparison – without noting that the average car is driven 11,000 miles a year while the average lawn mower is used perhaps an hour a week during the growing season.

Further, the EPA can only make that claim because, according to the National Research Council, "per-mile-exhaust emissions of new, properly operating light-duty vehicles [decreased] by 95-99 percent in 2004 compared with emissions of 1967 model-year vehicles." Moreover, lawn mowers have also made progress, with industry claiming to have cut emissions by 75 percent compared to 1990 models.

There are also safety concerns. The EPA proposal would almost certainly require installation of catalytic converters. Yet the heat put off by catalytic converters is such that the EPA itself recommends against parking cars in tall grass because of the chance of fire. But using such a device on a machine that is in constant contact with grass is okay?

George Miller, chairman of the nonprofit International Consortium for Fire Safety, Health and the Environment, also worries about the safety issue, despite assurances from EPA that it has studied potential hazards.

"We're not convinced" by the EPA study, he says. "We thought of certain things that they didn't, such as what the individual does in terms of fueling . . . and having grass clippings get stuck close to heat sources." Laboratories are fine for making heat measurements, he says, "but we want to see testing that imitates the real world." He also wants to see an evaluation conducted by a party with a bit less interest in the outcome than the one promulgating the regulations. EPA studies have repeatedly flunked outside reviews by panels established by the agency itself, but no outside panel is set to evaluate this one.

Miller's group, using industry money, has commissioned a $650,000 safety review by a Swedish government institute. He expects results by the end of year, but the EPA won't wait.

Finally, there's the matter of cost. The EPA claims its new regulations will not significantly increase the price of lawn mowers, saying catalytic converters would cost only about $8 per engine, which sounds ridiculously low. But in any case, the converters are just one of more than a dozen modifications it suggests. One manufacturer estimates EPA's regulations could raise the retail cost of lawn mowers by 31 percent. Businesses tend to highball these figures, but certainly the modifications won't be cheap.

So as both the air and lawn mowers becomes continually cleaner, the EPA employs "junk science" to make lawn mowers potentially more hazardous and more expensive. It all makes sense only when you realize that sensible regulations don't demonstrate an agency's strength – only ridiculous ones do. To the EPA, the "power" in "power mowers" has more than one meaning.