Blue Gold

If you think that life in the South of France is a bowl of cherries, you’re wrong. Actually, it’s a field of lavender. Some 1,500 farmers in the region cultivate the plant for perfumes, cosmetics and air fresheners. The “blue gold,” as it’s called, worth $60 a pound, is even a tourist attraction: Millions of people come each year to the beautiful fields of Provence to gaze upon the source of the marvelous sniff.

But if the European Union has its way, those aromatic fields could be reduced to a wasteland. New regulations adopted for 2018 would classify the plant as a chemical toxin, requiring bold black and red warning labels with messages like “CAN BE FATAL IF SWALLOWED OR INHALED.”

Lavender? Whoever died of an overdose of lavender?

Nobody, as far as we know. But according to EU regulators, not so innocent is that plant. Lavender — also known as lavandin (a hybrid), a.k.a. Lavandula angustifolia, or Lavandula officinalis – has an alarming history of causing allergic reactions that include nausea, vomiting, headache, and chills. Lavender oil is toxic if taken orally.

But lavender producers are appalled at the prospect of air freshener marked with a skull and crossbones or its EU equivalent. The whole idea, they say, is hazardous to the health of the industry.

They are fighting “to survive,” according to the lavender lobby APAL, an organization of lavender oil producers. The fight includes a billboard campaign and a mass petition to revoke the EU ruling.

“The consequence of this ruling, in the very short term, would be the ruin of our plantations and the disappearance of lavender from our Provencal countryside,” APAL warned in a letter sent recently to President Francois Hollande and other politicians.

Of course, the entrepreneurial spirit that has animated regulators on the continent is still a mere shadow of what it has been in the U.S. for decades. Unregulated regulation is our business.

A small sampling of the data (not to be taken orally) will suffice:

A recent analysis from the Competitive Enterprise Institute estimates that the annual cost of compliance with Environmental Protection Agency regulations alone is more than a third of a trillion dollars. For example, an EPA rule finalized in February 2012 set new emissions standards for coal- and oil-fired electric utilities at an estimated cost of $9.6 billion annually. Electricity prices are expected to rise initially by 3% a year as a result. The environmental benefits, however, are at best uncertain, say critics.

• But the madness in their method is what irks some the most. As the Economist put it, “Perhaps even worse, from the utilities’ point of view, is the unpredictable and inconclusive manner in which rules are proposed, modified, rescinded and reinstated by the bureaucracy and the courts. This can make investment in pollution-control gear, let alone new power plants, an especially risky business.

“Ralph Izzo, the boss of PSEG, a big power-provider, says his firm lost millions in the 1990s building natural-gas plants that were not in the end needed, in part because some of the EPA’s standards ended up more lenient than originally anticipated.”

• Earlier this year, California environmentalists appealed and won a court case to limit water diversions by farmers — in order to protect the tiny Delta smelt. Growers charge that the decision leaves more water for the endangered fish, but less for humans during the worst drought in a century.

Back in Europe there’s good news, though. At the first whiff of controversy, EU officials conceded that the regulations might indeed go too far, and negotiations with the lavender industry are under way.

A compromise seems likely. French producers don’t deny that lavender has its down side. They are willing to consider a mild cautionary against potential allergy risk on their product. What they oppose is scarifying labels found on chemicals used in industrial processes, such as hydrochloric acid or cleaning products.

EU authorities met with lavender producers in April and some results are expected this autumn.

If the problem can be resolved amicably, everyone should come out smelling fine.