Under the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency has steadily pursued a path of de-regulation.
Under both administrators appointed by President Trump, Scott Pruitt and current administrator Andrew Wheeler, the agency has undone dozens of regulations designed to protect the environment.
A new rule change proposed last month by the EPA fits in with this dangerous trend. It aims to officially recalculate the cost and benefits of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards that were established under the Obama administration pursuant to the implementation of the Clean Air Act.
Looking after our health is the EPA’s job. There is no conceivable reason why any health benefits of regulations should be discounted.
Janet McCabe, a professor of practice at IUPUI’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law and a key player in IU’s Grand Challenge environmental initiative, helped write the standards while serving in the EPA under President Obama. She released a statement condemning the proposal and outlining its threats to public health.
The standards placed limits on the levels of hazardous air pollutants — most significantly mercury, coal and oil-fired — power plants can emit.
Exposure to even small amount of mercury can lead to serious harms to human health, posing particular danger to infants and children. This is why the World Health Organization lists mercury among the top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals that pose major public health concerns.
Here’s what may be a little confusing about the EPA’s proposal: the agency isn’t actually proposing to directly change the existing Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. It’s proposing to replace the Obama administration’s standing cost-benefit analysis for the rule with a new analysis.
The EPA’s new calculations exclude major health benefits of the standards the Obama administration’s calculations included, radically changing the results of the analysis. The Obama administration asserted the standards’ monetized annual benefits would be between $30 billion and $90 billion. The EPA now asserts they are between $4 billion and $6 billion.
With the estimated costs between $7.4 billion and $9.6 billion annually, the EPA is essentially saying the regulations aren’t worth it. And even though the EPA isn’t seeking to change the standards, that still matters a lot.
There are two big problems that could arise from this rule change, both mentioned in McCabe’s public statement opposing it. One problem is that it leaves the standards highly vulnerable to legal challenge. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA must justify the regulations with a cost-benefit analysis.
So if an energy company tries to sue the government over these regulations, under this proposed rule change, they are likely to be overturned.
The other problem is this sets a precedent for how the EPA will conduct its cost-benefit analyses in the future. The EPA is adopting a narrower definition of which health benefits can be counted in the analysis. If the EPA uses this framework for all its cost-benefit analyses, environmental regulations will be considerably harder to implement in the future.
If you’re wondering why the EPA has undertaken this move, perhaps a hint lies in Wheeler’s past as a coal lobbyist. One of Wheeler’s major clients, Murray Energy CEO Robert E. Murray, personally asked Trump to roll back the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards in a now-leaked confidential memo.
After a 60-day period of public comment, the EPA will issue a final decision on whether to implement the proposal. Public comments can be submitted on regulations.gov.
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