Pollution kills some 200,000 Americans every year, since exposure to toxins makes people more vulnerable to respiratory and heart diseases, cancers, and other illnesses. But the Trump administration has finalized a rule to base pollution restrictions on cost, not on human safety.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler formally announced a rule change at the conservative, anti-regulation Heritage Foundation on Wednesday morning barring officials from considering secondary public health benefits when conducting cost-benefit analyses of proposed regulations under the Clean Air Act. This will save polluters money by allowing them to forgo the costs of implementing stronger emission controls while putting disinvested communities at risk.
The EPA is simply calling the new rule, which it first proposed in June, the “Increasing Consistency and Transparency in Considering Benefits and Costs in the Clean Air Act Rulemaking Process.” But it’s a lot more nefarious than it sounds.
“This deeply consequential action directly undercuts the whole of the mission of the EPA, which is to protect human health and the environment,” Julie McNamara, a senior energy analyst at Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in an email. “Instead of acting to actually limit the pollution that is causing real and significant harm to people around this country every day, the Trump administration is instead gallingly attempting to make the evidence of that harm go away.”
Considering secondary benefits has made it possible for the EPA to enact stricter rules on toxic pollutants from power plants, incinerators, and other sources. The Obama administration, for instance, justified implementing stronger regulations on mercury emissions from smokestacks by factoring in the reductions of acid gas, sulfur dioxide pollution, and particulate matter that would take place as a side effect, and the benefits all that would create for public health. If it had not considered those secondary impacts, the cost of regulating mercury would have seemed to outweigh the direct benefits. But the additional positive effects show how much more money could be saved on health care costs.
“Clean Air Act standards are cost-effective, in part because cleaning up one pollutant often leads to measures that reduce other pollutants as well,” Harold Wimmer, president of the American Lung Association, said in an emailed statement. “This is good news because steps the nation takes to clean up toxic air pollutants, including mercury and acid gases, have saved thousands of lives thanks to reductions of particle pollution in our air at the same time.”
But in April, the Trump administration announced they’d be doing the cost-benefit analysis for that mercury pollution standard to remove the consideration of those co-benefits, with Administrator Andrew Wheeler claiming that he was merely “correcting the previous administration’s flawed cost finding in its original rule.” The new rule announced on Wednesday will apply that horrible logic to all pollution control proposals.
“This new rule has no scientific, public health, economic or legal justification, and is a sharp break with past precedent,” Rachel Cleetus, policy director for the climate and energy program at Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “It’s aimed purely at rigging the rulemaking process in favor of polluters.”
The rule change is the latest in a slew of last-minute environmental rollbacks from the Trump administration, and it’s a truly craven way to go out. It will be particularly harmful for poor communities, often of color, across the U.S. Research shows that working class Latinx neighborhoods suffer the highest level of exposure to some air pollutants in the nation while Black Americans suffer higher death rates from heart disease and triple the asthma rates of white residents, both of which scientists have linked to exposure to toxic air. The rollback comes at a particularly terrible time, during the height of a respiratory pandemic raging out of control. Study after study shows that breathing in harmful emissions increases vulnerability to covid-19.
Even after President Donald Trump leaves the While House, this new rule could invite future legal trouble for air pollution regulations.
“The only purpose in making this a regulation seems to be to provide a basis for future lawsuits to slow down or prevent future administrations from regulating,” Roy Gamse, an economist and former EPA deputy assistant administrator for Planning and Evaluation, told Reuters.
Thankfully, though, the Biden administration can undo the change itself once it gets into office next month. There’s nothing stopping it from proposing a new rule immediately, and that’s what it should do.