E.P.A.’s New Coal Pollution Rules Will Lead to More Deaths, Agency’s Numbers Show

Source: By Lisa Friedman, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, August 22, 2018

A power plant in Robards, Ky. The mortality numbers for the Trump administration plan are calculated using a modeling system reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences.Luke Sharrett for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Tuesday made public the details of its new pollution rules governing coal-burning power plants, and the fine print includes an acknowledgment that the plan would increase carbon emissions and lead to up to 1,400 premature deaths annually.

The proposal, the Affordable Clean Energy rule, is a replacement for the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which was an aggressive effort to speed up the closures of coal-burning plants, one of the main producers of greenhouse gases, by setting national targets for cutting carbon dioxide emissions and encouraging utilities to use cleaner energy sources like wind and solar.

The new proposal, issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, instead seeks to make minor on-site efficiency improvements at individual plants and would also let states relax pollution rules for power plants that need upgrades, keeping them active longer.

Trump administration officials say the Clean Power Plan, in its effort to reduce carbon emissions, illegally tried to force electric utilities to use greener energy sources. The new plan, they said, would achieve many of the benefits sought by the Obama administration but in a way that is legal and allows states greater flexibility.

“Today’s proposal provides the states and regulated community the certainty they need to continue environmental progress while fulfilling President Trump’s goal of energy dominance,” Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the E.P.A., said in a statement Tuesday.

However, the hundreds of pages of technical analysis that accompany the new proposal indicate that emissions would grow under the plan.

Compared to the Obama-era plan, the analysis says, “implementing the proposed rule is expected to increase emissions of carbon dioxide and the level of emissions of certain pollutants in the atmosphere that adversely affect human health.”

The analysis also includes a section called “foregone” climate and human health benefits. That is, instead of listing the health gains of the Trump plan — preventing premature deaths, for example, or avoiding a certain number of increased emergency room visits from asthma attacks — it is instead describing the effect of the Trump plan as benefits lost.

The proposal lays out several possible pathways that individual states might use for regulating coal-fired power plants, and what the consequences would be for pollution and human health in each case. In the scenario the E.P.A. has pegged as the most likely to occur, the health effects would be significant.

In that scenario, the Trump E.P.A. predicts its plan will see between 470 and 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030 because of increased rates of microscopic airborne particulates known as PM 2.5, which are dangerous because of their link to heart and lung disease as well as their ability to trigger chronic problems like asthma and bronchitis.

By contrast, the Obama administration’s central argument for its Clean Power Plan was that the measure protected human health as well as the climate. Specifically, it said, the plan would help avoid between 1,500 and 3,600 premature deaths annually by 2030.

The Clean Power Plan aimed to curb planet-warming greenhouse gases by steering the energy sector away from coal and toward cleaner energy sources like wind and solar. According to its calculations, the decreased coal burning also would reduce other pollutants like sulfur dioxide, which poses respiratory risk, and nitrogen oxides that create ozone, which, in the form of smog, can damage lung tissue.

Mr. Obama’s E.P.A. also estimated that, by 2030, the Clean Power Plan would result in 180,000 fewer missed school days per year by children because of ozone-related illnesses. Asthma instances would also drop significantly, according to the analysis.

By contrast, the Trump administration analysis finds that own its plan would see 48,000 new cases of exacerbated asthma and at least 21,000 new missed days of school annually by 2030 because those pollutants would increase in the atmosphere rather than decrease.

“With the Trump dirty power plan we see again that the Trump administration cares more about extending the lives of coal plants than the American people,” said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director of the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental nonprofit group.

William L. Wehrum, acting administrator of the E.P.A.’s office of air and radiation, acknowledged Tuesday that there would be “collateral effects” on traditional pollutants compared to what the Clean Power Plan might have achieved. But, he said, “We have abundant legal authority to deal with those other pollutants directly, and we have aggressive programs in place that directly target emissions of those pollutants.”

The numbers in both the analysis for the Clean Power Plan as well as the Trump plan are derived from an intricate three-part modeling system reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences that the E.P.A. has used for decades to calculate the benefits and drawbacks of pollution regulation.

The premature mortality numbers also draw from a landmark Harvard University study that definitively linked polluted air to premature deaths. The study, known as Six Cities, tracked thousands of people for nearly two decades and ultimately formed the backbone of federal air pollution regulations.

That study itself is now under attack at E.P.A. The agency is considering a separate rule to restrict the use of any study for which raw data cannot be published, as is the case with Six Cities, which is based on the confidential health records of its participants. Scientists overwhelmingly oppose the move, pointing out that participants in long-term health studies typically agree to take part only if their personal health information won’t be made public.

If the E.P.A. finalizes that restriction rule, Mr. Schneider said, it would be able to claim in future studies a far lower premature death rate for the Clean Power Plan replacement because the Harvard study would no longer be taken into account.

The analysis of the new Trump administration plan does include premature death scenarios based on studies that are considered less comprehensive than the Harvard study. Those analyses start at the possibility of an extra eight to 25 deaths a year under Mr. Trump’s climate plan.