New Trump air rule will limit future pollution regulations, critics say

New Trump air rule will limit future pollution regulations, critics say
© Bonnie Cash

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday announced a proposal critics say not only restricts the Clean Air Act but will undermine future administrations seeking to reduce air pollution.

The proposal changes how the government justifies its own air pollution regulations, limiting how the EPA weighs carbon pollution that impacts climate change as well as the benefits of tackling multiple air pollutants at once. 

The proposal dictates how the agency must compile its cost-benefit analysis for future air rules — a lengthy, technical pro-con list defending a rule that is most often scrutinized by staffers and those who plan to sue over their regulations.

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The EPA said its latest measure would provide consistency and accused the Obama administration of faulty accounting that inflated benefits while underestimating costs.

“Today’s proposed action corrects another dishonest accounting method the previous administration used to justify costly, ineffective regulations,” EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerWatchdog: EPA hasn't provided 'sufficient justification' for decision not to recover Pruitt travel spending OVERNIGHT ENERGY: White House threatens veto on Democrats' .5 trillion infrastructure plan | Supreme Court won't hear border wall challenge | Witnesses describe 'excessive force' used by law enforcement in Lafayette Square Stronger pollution standards could save 143k lives: study MORE said in a statement.

Critics see it as a way to hamstring policy future administrations may want to implement. 

“What they’ve done is essentially manipulate and rig the cost-benefit analysis so that when EPA in the future gets back to their mission of protecting the environment and fighting climate change it will be much harder to justify their rules,” said Amit Narang of Public Citizen, a left-leaning advocacy group.

“This is going to have to be one of the first things the next administration and EPA will have to get rid of to get back to doing their jobs,” Narang added.

The proposal impacts a law considered one of the most life-saving on the books. In 2011, the EPA estimated the Clean Air Act would prevent 230,000 early deaths between 1990 and this year.

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One of the targets of the rule are so-called co-benefits, like reducing additional pollutants beyond what the agency intended to target.

The EPA gave a preview of Thursday’s proposal when it rolled out its new mercury rule. That rule didn’t change standards power plants must meet for reducing mercury, but those pollution controls also reduce dangerous fine particulate matter like soot.

A rule that went from saving consumers $90 billion under the Obama administration would now cost them $4 million to $6 million under the Trump administration analysis, making it ripe for court challenge. 

Indeed, a major coal company sued over the rule a little over a month later. 

Cost-benefit analyses do typically include analysis of a wide range of impacts, which in the environmental arena can mean weighing lives saved from reduced air pollution while monetizing the benefits of fighting climate change globally as well as assessing regulatory impacts like job loss and increased costs. 

Under the proposal, the EPA would not include co-benefits in the cost-benefit analysis, instead considering them in a separate document.

Wheeler said co-benefits “cannot be used to justify the rule, but I still think it will be important for those calculations to occur for people to look at, and to see.”

But critics say the EPA is acting hypocritically as many of its own rules wouldn’t appear beneficial without considering broader factors. 

That includes recent regulations like the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, which does not impose emissions caps at coal-fired power plants, and the SAFE Vehicles rule, which rolls back Obama-era clear car standards.

“ACE would not have complied with this approach for monetizing co-benefits, nor would the car standards nor would their oil and gas methane standards. This is all about handcuffing the next administration if this administration is not reelected,” said John Walke, a Clean Air Act expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council.  

“It’s ideological spite to be proceeding with this so late in the game and by relying on completely fabricated legal authority,” he said. “It’s an ideology they’ve carried but not wanted to constrain themselves with.”

Wheeler acknowledged the agency’s approach to cost-benefit analyses has been inconsistent. 

“Once this is finalized we will be holding ourselves to these standards that we're putting forward in this regulation,” Wheeler said. “At the end of our second term you can look back and judge how well we did.”

Environmental groups have already pledged to fight the rule.

“We will not sit idly by while this happens, and neither will the public,” Liz Perera, climate policy director at Sierra Club, said in a statement.

But the proposal earned support from industry groups, some of which have pushed the EPA to reconsider the cost-benefit analysis process.

“Ensuring the EPA’s rule-making process uses clear and consistent data showing how the agency developed proposed rules will benefit the public, industry and all stakeholders,” the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil and gas industry, said in a release.

The American Chemistry Council said it would “de-mystify and standardize the process.”

But Narang said the proposal underscores the problem while relying too heavily on cost-benefit analyses.

“We need our agencies relying less on it in future rather than more because they are so easily manipulated,” he said.