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Opinion

Editorial: Trump’s EPA is taking what may be its most harmful step yet

In this July 27, 2018, photo the Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morn
The Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo. on July 27, 2018.
(J. David Ake / Associated Press)

There is no doubt that President Trump views environmental regulations as little more than irksome impediments to robust economic productivity and corporate profits. One of his first acts was to order every federal department to rescind two federal rules for every new one adopted, and his special hostility to environmental mandates has been clear since he named Scott Pruitt, a state attorney general who’d repeatedly sued the Environmental Protection Agency, to lead it. As president, his heavy-handed efforts to roll back existing rules have drawn numerous legal challenges.

Now Trump’s EPA is taking what may be its most harmful step yet. It recently released a proposal that would undermine not only current regulations, but regulatory efforts in the future by disavowing the legal justification for a major rule limiting mercury emissions. The proposal hinges on some wonky legalisms, but if the approach survives the expected court challenges, it could lead to a fundamental change in how regulatory impacts are measured and make it significantly harder to protect the health and safety of Americans.

The proposal at issue focuses on the amount of mercury that power plants can release as a byproduct of burning coal. Since the Reagan administration, federal agencies have used cost-benefit analyses as they weighed the consequences of proposed regulations. After years of legal wrangling, the Obama administration determined in April 2016 that it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions, and that the EPA should take costs and both direct and indirect benefits (or “co-benefits”) into account when setting the limits.

If Trump’s EPA succeeds, it could severely undermine environmental protections in ways that are technical and therefore murky to the general public.
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In the case of burning coal, the process of scrubbing mercury from the emissions also significantly reduced the output of particles that feed smog and cause a variety of respiratory problems — the co-benefit. The cost of cutting the mercury emissions was put at $9.6 billion while the direct public health benefits were was estimated at $6 million. But when the co-benefits from reduced soot, nitrous oxide and related emissions were added in, the estimated public health benefit ranged from $37 billion to $90 billion. Those benefits included a reduction in health costs, a drop in lost work days and the avoidance of as many as 11,000 premature deaths. (Some 4,700 heart attacks would be prevented.) Clearly the broad benefits from eliminating mercury exceeded the costs industry faced in doing so.

The Trump administration now wants to eliminate consideration of the co-benefits from the equation and view whether it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate pollutants through the much narrower measure of direct costs and benefits. That’s ludicrous. Only in a warped world does it make sense to not count the ancillary benefits — and ancillary costs, for that matter — of a new regulation. Appropriate and informed decisions require tapping into the full context and impact of regulations.

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Ironically, power plant operators oppose Trump’s proposed regulation because they have already invested $18 billion to reduce mercury emissions by 90% and fear the new approach would add uncertainty to a regulatory regimen upon which they base long-term business investment decisions and to the rate-setting formulas that affect consumer prices. The coal mining industry, we should note, likes the new proposal because mine operators hope it will reduce the cost of using coal in power plants. But that isn’t likely, since power plants are already complying with the stricter standard, and other market forces continue to undercut demand for coal. Not to mention that coal is the most polluting of the major fossil fuels, and to mitigate the worst effects of global warming, humankind must end its reliance on carbon-spewing fuels for energy.

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The real goal here seems to be to lay the foundation for a broad change in how the EPA measures costs and benefits, including the effects of greenhouse gases on the environment, as the administration continues its broad assault on decades of environmental regulations. If Trump’s EPA succeeds, it could severely undermine environmental protections in ways that are technical and therefore murky to the general public, but could lead to increased pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that are dangerous in the near future and devastating in the long term.

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