Trump EPA Makes It Harder to Toughen Air Pollution Standards

Source: By Jennifer A Dlouhy, Bloomberg • Posted: Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The Trump administration is changing the way the Environmental Protection Agency weighs the costs and benefits of regulations meant to fight air pollution, something that will make it harder to justify tougher standards in the future.

The move being announced by the EPA on Wednesday could at least temporarily tie the hands of President-elect Joe Biden’s environmental regulators as they seek to strengthen pollution curbs relaxed under President Donald Trump. In particular, the more narrow cost-benefit analysis dictated by the EPA rule could limit the agency’s ability to cap emissions from power plants and methane leaks at oil wells.

The incoming Biden administration could seek to revise the new cost-benefit rule, but that would take time — requiring a formal proposal and public comment period first.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler cast the new rule as essential to ensuring the agency fairly and consistently evaluates the costs of the regulations it imposes under the Clean Air Act.

“We are ensuring that future rulemakings under the Clean Air Act are transparent, fair, and consistent with EPA governing statutes, the American public deserves to know the benefits and costs of federal regulations,” Wheeler said in a news release.

Under the rule, the EPA will be required to make decisions about air regulations based on a narrow look at their potential costs and benefits, focusing squarely on those effects directly tied to specific pollutants targeted by rules and not any additional environmental improvements. The agency also will be directed to focus closely on U.S. benefits, a shift that could affect future rules aimed at fighting the global problem of climate change.

The EPA could still analyze those additional effects — but they could not drive decisions about whether a regulation is warranted.

Related: Trump Rushes Environmental Rules That Could Handcuff Biden

Public health advocates argue that approach is shortsighted and will force the agency to arbitrarily ignore the full range of benefits its rules could produce.

“They’re really trying to put their thumb on the scale or cherry pick a result to ignore real-world pollution reductions,” said Paul Billings, senior vice president of advocacy for the American Lung Association.

When a rule accomplishes more “it should be celebrated as an efficiency — a benefit to society,” Billings said. “If you get these additional benefits, so much the better, so the agency doesn’t have to go back and do other rules” that lead to more uncertainty and additional requirements for industry, Billings said.

The EPA has long taken a more expansive view. Under former President Barack Obama, the EPA was criticized for justifying a rule requiring power plants to control mercury emissions by relying heavily on the estimated health benefits tied to reducing airborne particle pollution.

Under the new cost-benefit rule, set to take effect as soon as it appears in the Federal Register, the EPA will be required to clearly report the results of its analysis and make the underlying data publicly available.

The measure should drive more durable environmental regulation, said Philip Rossetti, a senior fellow with the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank.

“Fundamentally, we want a regulatory policy that’s going to maximize benefits and minimize costs,” and robust regulations that clear the new cost-benefit analysis will be better able to survive court scrutiny too, Rossetti said. “The truth is, if you’re confident the benefits of your regulation outweigh the cost, that’s going to show up in the math.”

The measure comes as the EPA takes other steps to constrain its own flexibility and puts the finishing touches on a regulation to block the agency from relying on scientific research that isn’t public.