Last week faux-conservative funnyman Stephen Colbert did a segment ribbing conservatives and libertarians for their criticism of the EPA. After a clip of Fox News’ John Stossel arguing that the EPA has done a good job in the past but has now gone too far, Colbert, in his typically satirical fashion, parodied the criticisms thus: “We protected the air and water. We cleaned it up. Now [the EPA is] just rubbing it in our faces by continuing to keep it clean.”

Well, not quite. The issue isn’t whether the EPA should stop protecting the environment, but whether it makes sense to continually increase regulation to achieve diminishing environmental benefits. Ambient levels of carbon monoxide are down 79% since 1980. For lead, it’s 92%; nitrogen dioxide, 46%; sulfur dioxide, 71%. In a weak economy, how many jobs are worth sacrificing to get those levels down even further?

To bolster his case, Colbert talked to former EPA Administrator Carol Browner, who argued that “we need to regulate mercury. Mercury is a neurotoxin. Its bad for our brains. Its bad for our childrens brains. Mercury, of course, is already a highly regulated substance. The EPA, however, has currently proposed several new rules targeting coal plants for emissions of trace amounts of mercury in the air. The vast majority of mercury emissions come from natural activity such as volcanoes, geysers, and subsea vents. Only about 0.5% of total mercury emissions come from American coal plants. And there is little evidence that such low levels of ambient mercury are harmful to human health. Indeed, EPA’s proposed mercury exposure standards are two to three times as those adopted by the World Health Organization, The Food and Drug Administration, and the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. If adopted, EPA’s new standards would be the strictest in the entire world.

Ms. Browner also sought to deflect criticism of her former agency on the jobs front, claiming that EPA was a jobs-creator because “when EPA says that that dirty smokestack needs a new scrubber, someone has to engineer that scrubber, someone has to build that scrubber, someone has to install it, maintain it, operate it.” Ms. Browner seems to have overlooked the possibility that plants might end up closing if they can’t afford complying with the new regulations, as is happening already. Even where plants do choose to comply, the money to pay the costs of doing so does not just fall from the sky, but must be taken away from other productive activities. One wonders whether ignorance of the broken window fallacy is a job requirement for being an EPA Administrator.

Colbert is a funny guy, but one shouldn’t take his show too seriously.

– Josiah Neeley