Benefits of limiting toxins obviously outweigh cost — except at Trump's EPA

When they thought no one was looking on the Friday before the New Year, Trump's EPA decided to cheat the American public in favor of polluters, by exaggerating the price tag of environmental regulations while minimizing their benefit.

In rolling back the tight Mercury and Air Toxics Standards finalized under President Obama, the Trump administration created a fundamental shift in the federal regulatory framework as it seeks to undo each building block of environmental regulation developed over EPA’s 49-year history.

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This move would only consider countervailing risks while disregarding the full benefits of adopting pollution controls, especially in considering ancillary or “co-benefits.” Co-benefits are the indirect benefits of a rule, or the added gains that EPA’s rule was not designed to create.

Numerous Obama administration rules relied on reductions of other pollutants, calculated as co-benefits, even when those emissions weren't being regulated. This previous, relatively uncontroversial corner of federal regulatory cost-benefit analysis has now been targeted by industry. 

Since the 1980s, federal agencies — including EPA — have calculated the financial costs and benefits of proposed regulations. Showing that benefits outweigh the costs isn't up for debate, but Trump’s EPA is now abandoning one crucial, long-standing and widely accepted part of the process. Since 2004, in a mandate added by Republican President George W. Bush, all federal regulatory agencies — not just EPA —have been required to include co-benefits in their cost-benefit analyses.  

The Office of Management and Budget explicitly tells agencies: "Your analysis should look beyond the direct benefits and direct costs of your rule and consider any important ancillary benefits and countervailing risks."

EPA complied with this directive by including co-benefits in cost-benefit calculations. For example, in 1985, EPA proposed reducing the amount of lead allowed in gasoline. Lead is a neurotoxin, but the EPA also considered that lowering lead levels would have the co-benefit of reducing nitrogen oxides and smog, which cause other health problems. 

Another instance comes from 1987, when EPA regulated chlorofluorocarbons that were depleting the Earth’s ozone layer. In that case, EPA estimated the significant, direct health benefits from exposure to less UV radiation because of a more robust ozone layer. And EPA determined that keeping the ozone layer intact helps minimize exposure to ground-level ozone. Because of this two-pronged analysis, EPA ordered the phase-out of a whole class of CFC compounds. 

But today’s EPA wants to abandon all that. It has prepared us for the turnaround by criticizing the use of co-benefits in a series of actions it has taken over the past two years. If the consideration of co-benefits is abandoned in EPA rule promulgation, it would affect the analysis of regulations by every U.S. government agency.

It would, in effect, be an attack not just on environmental regulations, but also on all rules that protect people at the expense of profit-makers and could be employed to undermine all rational cost-benefit calculations by the federal government.

Co-benefits are an important by-product for all federal regulations. In a surprising contradiction to Trump’s anti-regulatory agenda, the most recent OMB report found that the annual benefits of major federal regulations from 2006 to 2016 were between $219 billion and $695 billion, while the annual costs were between $59 billion and $88 billion. Most of the benefits cited are due to EPA's Clean Air Act rules and are calculated from co-benefits. 

For many rules, co-benefits are larger than the benefits of the rule itself. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) has emerged as a test case in the fight over co-benefits, because sky-high co-benefits were the reason the rules passed muster under Obama. By reducing mercury — a devastating neurotoxin — industry will simultaneously cut the amount of other toxic pollutants that escape from its stacks. Installing mercury pollution control will also prevent 11,000 premature deaths and 130,000 asthma attacks each year, adding up to total annual health benefits of $90 billion

By looking at just the direct benefits of complying with MATS, EPA found that MATS can cost power producers upward of $9.6 billion per year. The direct benefits were calculated as only up to $6 million. Trump’s EPA analysis argues that it should not include co-benefits in the MATS rule. Company officials (especially coal companies) contend that adding co-benefits is a form of double counting. But EPA is only counting co-benefits when they would not be generated by other regulations. So, these benefits are counted once, and only once.

But now EPA will not count co-benefits — period. This is wrong. It departs from long-standing non-partisan federal cost-benefit analysis. Federal policymakers should consider all the benefits and costs of each protective rule it proposes. Counting co-benefits is common sense because it treats both sides of the ledger equally. Removing co-benefit calculations is putting your thumb on one side of the scale.

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The changes in the Supreme Court will determine whether this rollback is legal. Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughMcConnell challenger faces tougher path after rocky launch Lindsey Graham's Faustian bargain Liberal, conservative Supreme Court justices unite in praising Stevens MORE sat on the D.C. Circuit panel that heard the recent challenge to the MATS rule. His 2014 dissent argued that the Obama EPA did not justify the MATS rule because it downplayed costs and used co-benefits in determining whether to regulate. One more vote against co-benefits may sink one of the bedrock principles of federal regulation. 

“Co-benefits” should not be a partisan issue. In federal policymaking, ancillary benefits have been counted in cost-benefit analysis for the last 30 years. Trump has allowed industry to completely influence the federal decision-making process, opening areas of attack once believed off-limits. We, the scientists and workers of the EPA, fear for the safeguards that protect the American public. Congress must draft rules that stop this administration from kowtowing to industry and instead serve the American people. Then EPA can get back to doing what it does best — protecting human health and the environment.

Michael Mikulka is president of AFGE Local 704, representing EPA Region 5 workers protecting IL, IN, MI, MN, OH and WI and is spokesman for Save the U.S. EPA Campaign.