EPA accounting: Like pretending Viagra just treats hypertension

The latest assault on public health from Trump’s EPA involves redefining the “benefits” and “co-benefits” of regulating mercury emissions. By reducing the amount of toxic mercury that spews from power plants (the benefit), you also wind up reducing emissions of soot and fine particles (the co-benefit). But the EPA wants to eliminate those co-benefits from any cost-benefit analysis of mercury regulations.

To appreciate the absurdity of this view, consider Viagra, which was originally developed as a heart medication. Treating hypertension and chest pain is Viagra’s “benefit.” But, to say that its other effects — its “co-benefits” — have no value would defy common sense.

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Similarly, EPA defies common sense with its proposed Mercury Air Toxics Standards. Mercury, of course, is an extremely toxic substance that affects the central and peripheral nervous systems. Exposure to mercury reduces IQs, can harm the immune system, lungs and kidneys. In high enough doses, mercury can be fatal.

But EPA’s new proposal concludes that current mercury standards are too expensive to be “appropriate and necessary,” because they don’t reduce mercury emissions enough to justify the costs. Those costs include pollution control equipment that lowers emissions not only of mercury, but also of soot and other fine particles, which are tremendously harmful to public health.

The new proposal ignores the substantial co-benefits of reducing soot and fine particles, which include:

  • fewer premature deaths
  • lower rates of lung and heart disease
  • reduced infant mortality
  • fewer emergency room visits
  • less time lost from school and work

These co-benefits are concrete and demonstrable: The EPA itself has estimated the value of these benefits at between $33 and $90 billion

No one logically ignores co-benefits — not businesses, not individuals and until now, not government agencies. To the contrary, federal policy has long been to treat co-benefits on an equal footing with direct benefits as fundamental to understanding regulatory costs. That is because sound regulatory economics and longstanding guidance from the Office of Management and Budget calls for consideration of all the significant consequences of a proposed action — both benefits and costs — to understand and fully and fairly depict its effects. If equipment to control pollution reduces more than one pollutant or increases some while reducing others, decisionmakers need to consider that information.

This is true across society. The greatest value of some modern medications, including Viagra, has been for new uses beyond their original purpose. In the environmental arena, every administration since President Reagan’s has considered indirect benefits and relied on them in their decision-making.

In the case of the proposed Mercury Air Toxics Standards, ignoring co-benefits won’t even save industry or households money, because the controls are already in place. And the power industry is not requesting the change. The proposal is really a delivery vehicle, using flawed economics, to undermine the integrity of future environmental rules. EPA’s intent may not just be to ignore the co-benefits in this mercury air toxics proposal, but to exclude co-benefits from all future regulatory impact analyses.    

By ignoring the risks of fine particle emissions and understating environmental benefits, EPA is now tilting the balance away from sound, evidence-based regulations and the public health benefits they yield. Failure to consider the full effects will result in dishonest decision-making that uses incomplete information to deprive Americans of the economic and environmental well-being they deserve. 

A skeptic might suspect that the damage to regulatory integrity is the real “co-benefit” of the supposed cost savings for industry.

The integrity of environmental regulation, like democracy itself, dies in darkness. Consciously excluding well understood and previously accepted effects of a regulatory policy is like pulling the shades on the public process of public health and environmental management. The American people are entitled to protection from both mercury and particle exposures and all the benefits Congress intended when it wrote our nation’s environmental laws. This requires a legal, scientific and economic deliberation that is honest, transparent and inclusive. By issuing a proposal to ignore co-benefits, EPA is abandoning its record of integrity achieved over nearly 50 years. The American people deserve better.

David F. Coursen is a former attorney in the EPA Office of General Counsel.

Robert Wolcott is an economist who served as senior counsel in the EPA Office of Research and Development and deputy assistant administrator for policy.

Both serve in the leadership of the Environmental Protection Network, a nonprofit, volunteer organization of EPA alumni working to protect the agency's progress toward clean air, water, land and climate protections.