When President Barack Obama unveiled his plan to pare emissions from U.S. power plants two years ago, he stressed the long-term health benefits: 3,600 fewer premature deaths, 90,000 fewer asthma attacks in children and a decline in hospital visits.
Now, the Trump administration is justifying its rollback of the Clean Power Plan by arguing its predecessor exaggerated the public health gains.
The Environmental Protection Agency began formally undoing Obama’s plan on Tuesday, a process that includes revising some of its underlying calculations to emphasize costs and minimize benefits. Among the casualties: long-held conclusions about how microscopic air pollution jeopardizes human health.
“They are putting their thumb on the scales and changing the math enough so they can say the costs aren’t justified for the Clean Power Plan,” said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director for the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group that supports the initiative. “It’s a game of trying to reach a predetermined outcome.”
The exercise is necessary because the 71-year-old Administrative Procedure Act that governs federal rulemaking bars policy pivots that are “arbitrary and capricious.” That means agencies must provide good legal and policy explanations for rescinding regulations. President Donald Trump’s administration is set to do the same thing to justify repealing other Obama-era rules, including limits on methane leaks from oil wells.
First Formal Step
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said Monday the administration was about to take the first formal step to repeal the Clean Power Plan, which aimed to cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. The initiative mandated states make broad changes in their overall electricity mix, mostly by displacing coal-fired power plants with that from wind, solar and natural gas.
“The rule really was about picking winners and losers,” Pruitt told a group of coal miners in Hazard, Kentucky. “The past administration was unapologetic: They were using every bit of power every bit of authority to use the EPA to pick winners and losers in how we generate electricity in this country — and that’s wrong.”
In proposing to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Trump administration is asserting that the EPA overstepped its legal authority in forcing sweeping changes in the nation’s energy mix, while relying on a cost-benefit analysis that was “highly uncertain” and “controversial” in the way it linked air pollution to sickness and premature death.
The replacement analysis acts to increase the potential costs of complying with the rule while downplaying the benefits it would deliver to public health and the environment.
The previous EPA assumed significant health benefits would spring from reducing the amount of soot that is belched from coal plants. When inhaled, that fine particulate matter — 1/70th the width of human hair — can penetrate deep into lungs and sometimes into the blood stream, exacerbating heart and lung diseases, causing asthma attacks and sometimes leading to premature death.
The EPA has historically said there is no safe threshold for particulate matter, a conclusion that dovetails with a series of public health studies and underlies a host of other federal regulations governing power plant pollution.
The Trump administration, however, is preparing to assert that the potential health benefits of cutting that pollution ends at a certain point — when levels are cut to match a national standard or a threshold examined in two long-term health studies, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg.
So, the EPA is set to discount the potential value and health benefits that could stem from driving that pollution down even more. That change would cut the expected benefits of the Clean Power Plan, helping make the case that the costs of the rule outweigh those potential gains.
“This is a pretty radical step for the EPA,” said Kevin Steinberger, a policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “All the scientific evidence we have suggests there’s no limit at which exposure to particulate matter is not dangerous to human health.”
Obama’s EPA relied on the assumption that there are health benefits at reducing particulate matter down to zero, “so no matter how much you reduce it, you will get benefits,” said Andres Restrepo, a Sierra Club staff attorney focusing on air pollution and climate change. “That’s been standard practice.”
Conservatives who have criticized the EPA’s approach under Obama said the Trump administration is right to reevaluate that assumption. Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said he would prefer Trump’s EPA go further and not count the “co-benefits” of reducing fine particulate matter when the real aim is curbing carbon dioxide.
“If these illusory co-benefits are going to be counted, then we think that it is entirely appropriate to cut them off for levels below the national ambient air quality standards,” Ebell said. “That level has been set at what has been determined to be safe for human health. How can there be a health benefit below the safe level?”
EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman cast the Trump analysis as more defensible.
“The facts are that the Obama administration’s estimates and analysis of costs and benefits was, in multiple areas, highly uncertain and/or controversial,” Bowman said by email. “The Trump administration is, in a robust, open, and transparent way, presenting a wide range of analysis scenarios to the public.”
The Trump administration’s math also helps diminish the potential benefits the Clean Power Plan would deliver by focusing those calculations on what happens inside U.S. borders, instead of across the globe. And, it’s changing the way it calculates present-day costs based on projected long-term benefits. The higher the so-called discount rate, the lower the estimate of harm.
“The challenge that we have here is that we have an administration that wants to deny the science,” former EPA head Gina McCarthy told NPR Tuesday. “I think what you’ll find is that this proposal will fail miserably” both in public opinion and in the courts, she said.
The Trump administration is also making other changes to the way the government accounts for the costs of complying with the rule. That math yields real differences. For instance, while the Obama administration touted an $8.4 billion price tag, the Trump administration’s math yields a compliance cost of more than $33 billion.
“This is a way for them to say the cost of the rule are huge, and really significant and really a burden, when in reality, they’re using the same numbers EPA used in 2015 — they’ve just moved things around,” Steinberger said.
Ebell said it was the Obama administration that employed faulty accounting, and the change restores standard practice. “How could anyone object to removing trickery from the regulatory process?” he said.
Recent analysis suggests the costs of satisfying Obama’s Clean Power Plan actually have gone down, as the U.S. makes strides toward meeting its carbon-cutting targets and less-polluting energy sources such as wind, solar and natural gas prove less expensive than anticipated. The U.S. is already well on the path to achieving the Clean Power Plan’s headline goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions 32 percent by 2030.
The regulation now looks like “a real bargain,” said David Doniger, director of the NRDC’s Climate and Clean Air program. “The Clean Power Plan would have achieved a 32 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions at what now it looks like at an increasingly minimal cost.”
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