Trump EPA finalizes rollback making it harder to enact new public health rules

Source: By. Brady Dennis, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, December 10, 2020

New cost-benefit requirements could minimize the way the agency calculates the benefits of curbing harmful air pollution

The John E. Amos coal-fired power plant owned and operated by Appalachian Power in Winfield, W.Va., on Feb. 6.

The Trump administration finalized a rule Wednesday that could make it more difficult to enact public health protections, by changing the way the Environmental Protection Agency calculates the costs and benefits of new limits on air pollution.

The new cost-benefit requirements, which apply to all future Clean Air Act rules, instruct the agency to weigh all the economic costs of curbing an air pollutant but disregard many of the incidental benefits that arise, such as illnesses and deaths avoided by a potential regulation. In other words, if reducing emissions from power plants also saves tens of thousands of lives each year by cutting soot, those “co-benefits” should not be counted.

“This is all about transparency and conducting our work in a transparent fashion” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said Wednesday, as he announced the rule during a webinar at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “Our goal with this rule is to help the public better understand the why of a rulemaking, in addition to the what.” He argued that the agency’s past approach “has meant inconsistent rules and a disoriented private sector.”

Wheeler said the change would not prevent the EPA from factoring in indirect benefits of new regulations in the future but that it requires the agency to be “upfront” about these calculations. “We will also require reports that distinguish between domestic and international benefits,” Wheeler added, “so that Americans can see what their regulators are doing for people here in the United States.”

The move is one of several major environmental rollbacks that the administration is pushing through before President Trump leaves office next month. Earlier this week, it rejected calls to tighten national standards for fine particle pollution, known as PM 2.5, which ranks as the country’s most widespread deadly air pollutant. The EPA also plans to finalize a rule in coming weeks that will restrict the kinds of scientific studies the agency can use in crafting public health rules.

The EPA’s proposal has faced withering criticism from environmental advocates, who suggested it will not withstand legal challenges. The incoming administration is also likely to overturn the rule, although this would take time because there are legal procedures that must be followed to eliminate an existing regulation.

Wheeler on Wednesday dismissed criticism of the effort as misleading, saying environmental groups and some media “are ignoring what we are trying to do here and mischaracterizing this. This is all about transparency.”

Some conservative and industry groups praised the move, saying the change marked an overdue change in how the EPA shapes its regulations.

Daren Bakst, a senior research fellow in agricultural policy at Heritage’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies, said the move would address the “abuses” of past administrations when it came to weighing the costs and benefits of new regulations.

In a statement, the American Chemistry Council also backed the change.

“Ensuring a clear, consistent and correct appraisal of benefits and costs in the regulatory process is a commonsense idea with bipartisan support,” said Karyn Schmidt, senior director of regulatory and technical affairs. “The ‘good government’ reforms included in the rule will improve decision-making as to where to allocate resources while supporting capital investment that drives economic growth.”

But the shift also sparked sharp criticism, with critics suggesting it represented a last-minute attempt to hamper future administrations.

“A lame duck Trump EPA is exiting with a legacy of lawbreaking and lying about the health benefits of clean air and climate safeguards, to hamstring future EPAs and thwart stronger protections,” said John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The president’s minions know this midnight rollback will be reversed by an incoming Biden administration or the courts; so this cynical act is sheer sabotage, designed to waste resources and the time it will take to reverse it.”

In August, a collection of national health and medical organizations, including the American Lung Association and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, blasted the EPA’s rationale for the changes.

“In the proposal, EPA repeatedly references comments made to the agency highlighting the need for this rule because of an assumed tendency to underestimate costs or overestimate benefits,” the groups wrote. “Nowhere in the proposal exists justifications for that claim. On the contrary, reducing emissions [has] consistently exceeded expectations.”

And Richard Revesz, who directs the New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity, noted that the administration’s approach is “inconsistent” with existing federal guidance, which states that “in performing a cost-benefit analysis all costs and benefits should be taken into account, whether they’re direct or indirect.”

“They’re basically saying that the indirect consequences of regulation must be taken into account if they’re negative, and should be ignored if they are positive,” Revesz said in a panel discussion that the institute hosted last week. “I mean, there’s no scenario under which an approach like that is rational in any way.”