Santa comes early for polluters

Santa comes early for polluters
© Getty

The Trump administration has just opened a new front in its war on environmental regulations, offering polluters a windfall with an executive order freezing or cutting back environmental regulations, ostensibly to help the economy recover from COVID-19. 

You’d think that one thing the pandemic has taught us all is that it’s impossible to have a vibrant economy when the nation’s health is at risk. Yet the administration has included this among the COVID-19 lessons it has failed to learn.  

With neither irony nor self-awareness, the executive order signed last week promises “to combat the economic consequences of COVID-19 with the same vigor and resourcefulness with which the fight against COVID-19 itself has been waged.” But if the White House can’t do a better job addressing the economic consequences of COVID-19 than it has done with its medical consequences, we’ll soon have longer bread lines and bigger soup kitchens than during the Great Depression.   

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The order directs agencies to address the economic emergency by “rescinding, modifying, waiving, or providing exemptions from regulations and other requirements that may inhibit economic recovery.” The unstated assumption is that regulations and other legal requirements — especially environmental requirements — that Congress has enacted to protect our nation’s health and welfare will “inhibit economic recovery.” That assumption, at the heart of the Trump agenda, reflects little more than wishful thinking and industry talking points. Certainly, it is not supported by the facts. 

Even Trump’s own Office of Management and Budget has recognized that environmental regulations save lives and money, reporting that, over the last decade, 39 EPA regulations produced benefits between $194 and $687 billion, far more than their costs of $45-$55 billion. 

An EPA study found benefits from 30 years of air quality improvements under the Clean Air Act exceeding $2 trillionmore than 30 times their costs. 

As for climate protection measures short-circuited by EPA deregulatory actions, the Clean Power Plan was projected to have annual health and climate benefits worth between $34 and $54 billion in 2030, far more than costs of $8.4 billion. 

In another recent rulemaking, using standard accounting practices, EPA found that controls on mercury emissions save taxpayers up to $90 billion. These benefits make our nation’s people healthier and safer, lowering annual health care costs and hundreds of thousands fewer premature deaths, lower rates of lung and heart disease, reduced infant mortality, fewer emergency room visits and less time lost from school and work. 

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These are precisely the kinds of health benefits Congress intended in enacting this country’s environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act.   

On the other side of the cost-benefit table, we also know that  predictions of savings from reduced regulation are notoriously unreliable, with regulatory costs often overestimated, for example, by ignoring industry’s capacity to adapt. (Indeed, the EO itself acknowledges industry’s “initiative” and capacity for “innovation.”).

A case in point illustrating inflated cost estimates is an action the administration is now proposing to set aside, the requirement for power plants to limit their mercury emissions. When the Supreme Court reviewed this regulation in 2015, it engaged in much hand-wringing about its heavy costs, initially predicted to be $9.6 billion per year. But now the regulation has been fully implemented (although EPA intends to undo it) and we know that total compliance costs since 2012 were $18 billion, a little more than $2 billion per year and less than a quarter of estimates. 

So “regulations are bad” has little more basis in fact than an urban legend or a suggestion that bleach is a COVID-19 remedy. Still, it is the administration's only story and it is sticking to it, offering it up now as a rationale for a new anti-regulatory EO that promises polluters many things that have long been on their holiday wish-lists.

The only way to justify this windfall is to ignore the well-documented benefits of regulation and use COVID-19 as a pretext for a wholesale attack on regulations. To the administration, that is evidently preferable to, in the words of Trump EPA Transition team leader Myron Ebell, letting “a crisis go to waste.” Polluters must be delighted at what Santa Claus promises to leave under their tree, but all the American people get is a sick feeling and coal in their stockings. 

David F. Coursen is a retired EPA attorney and a member of the Environmental Protection Network, a nonprofit organization of EPA alumni working to protect the agency's progress toward clean air, water, land and climate protections.