There’s no sound policy rationale for Trump’s EPA rollbacks

There’s no sound policy rationale for Trump’s EPA rollbacks
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There is a troubling trend emerging, a sort of nullification of the very idea of policy. It’s an overwhelming cynicism in the way we talk about, and sadly, implement policy today — as people in power punish perceived enemies and reward friends rather than find a way to move society forward.

Both of the last two administrations have underestimated the risks of climate change and overestimated the costs of transition. Bush felt we could wait until we were wealthier and Obama felt the change was too drastic to be done without a bipartisan consensus. I think both were wrong, but my disagreement was a disagreement on the path, not the destination — making people’s lives better. We could disagree vigorously, or even angrily, about the weight to place on the various tradeoffs inherent in any policy (everything has costs and benefits) but I still could see how, given a set of assumptions, everyone could believe their path was the best for society.

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Burning fossil fuels, for instance, has been a massive boon to humanity. It’s allowed us to grow and prosper in a way that would have been unimaginable only a few hundred years ago. But, as industrialization increased and living standards increased it wasn’t as clear that the decreasing marginal benefit of more was worth the increasing marginal cost.

When flammable rivers and smog-choked cities were no longer a necessary evil just to get by, we could focus on getting the goods with fewer costs. This has been the driving purpose of environmental legislation since the 1970s — to keep the benefits of our technological advances while reducing the burdens.

The bind we seem to be in today is that people forget, or ignore, the fundamental purpose of the policy in all the recent moves by President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassley: Dems 'withheld information' on new Kavanaugh allegation Health advocates decry funding transfer over migrant children Groups plan mass walkout in support of Kavanaugh accuser MORE. When he rolls back the Clean Power Plan or the emissions standards for cars, the White House and reporters debate about winners and losers and whether or not the action will deliver the jobs he promised (it won’t), not if it’s remotely consistent with the policy aim of the Clean Air Act — keeping harmful pollutants out of the air. Not only does this remove the context for the debate, it neuters the moral content from the policy. Laws are passed to solve problems. We can argue about the best way to solve the problem, but it’s impossible to have a good faith debate if one side pretends the law was enacted out of malice rather than its actual purpose. 

To take a recent example, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) has a specific purpose — to stop using so much oil (with its massive costs in pollution, national security, and economic security) and replace it with bioenergy — an industry where our production capacity rivals Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves. It was explicitly about developing a partnership with farmers to advance technology in biofuels with an eye towards displacing oil use as rapidly as possible with the cleanest possible fuel.

Reinforcing the purpose, the RFS was paired with a significant revision of the fuel economy standards (for the first time in decades), and various provisions to encourage electrification of the transportation sector. Everything pointed toward the central goal of ending U.S. use of oil as quickly as possible and replacing it with energy that did not contribute to global warming.

Like most environmental legislation, because it is asking industry to adjust to a new reality, the RFS contemplated a progression, where more and more fuel was blended and the biofuel became more advanced over time.

Again, as usual, the legislation included safety valves and waivers to allow the EPA to give flexibility to those in the supply chain for unanticipated setbacks or if it wasn’t financially feasible to move as quickly as the law contemplated. What the RFS did not anticipate was that years of fervent opposition and furious lobbying would lead an administration to turn those safety valves into a mechanism to undo the very purposes of the legislation — but that’s where we find ourselves today.

For over 10 years now, the RFS has been on the books with a simple mandate to gradually increase the percentage of biofuel blended into our fuel supply. Much of the industry has accepted this arrangement and invested in their facilities to allow them to blend biofuels, at least up to a point. Some of the industry has chosen to gamble, year after year, that this mandate will be lifted and so they have bought credits to comply.

Trump’s EPA, by stretching its authority to give individual waivers to refineries to the limit, has fundamentally undone the purpose of the legislation. As prices have cratered, due to this administratively-engineered glut in RFS credits, the certainty needed to justify investment in advancing biofuel technology will crater with it. And the fact is, there’s no policy rationale for it at all — it doesn’t make gas cheaper for consumers, while it increases pollution. It’s just a gift to an already flush, and heavily subsidized, oil industry. It’s nothing more than an effort to undermine the largely successful Democratic efforts to find a place for farmers in the clean energy economy. Democrats have noticed the opportunity to run against this stealth attack and so expect to hear about it more. 

The world has moved on. We have the technologies to do all the things we do today without trading away our health and our children’s prosperity. It's time to recognize that fossil fuels are a dead end, there’s no forward path that relies on them. We’ve discovered better paths to a better world. Time to stop listening to those that pretend it away.

Mike Carr is executive director of New Energy America. He previously served as principal deputy assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and as senior counsel on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.