Last month, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler proposed an amendment to the federal Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and the Clean Air Act “risk and review” process that should worry everyone who cares about the Adirondacks and public health.
On the surface, the change looks like a routine adjustment of technical language about the way EPA calculates “side benefits” from proposed air pollution rules. That’s how EPA is describing it. As a result, few people have paid attention to the proposal. But if approved, it would have far-reaching effects that strike at the heart of some of the most important public health and environmental protections.
Worse, it could prevent new regulations and improvements to current rules, at a time when local research tells us that EPA must do more to protect the Adirondacks from acid rain, mercury and climate change.
Wheeler is a former coal industry lobbyist and former staff member for Sen. James Inhofe, R-OK, who infamously declared he believed global climate change was “a hoax.” It appears that Wheeler’s real aim is to use the rule change as a precedent. That would clear the way for him to weaken EPA’s method for assessing environmental impacts of all proposed pollution rules. That would allow him to systematically undermine EPA’s entire regulatory framework, without seeking legislation from Congress.
Wheeler’s proposal would change one crucial thing: EPA could no longer count the “side-benefits” of new pollution rules in assessing whether they are reasonable. This is vital, since federal appeals courts are always asked to judge whether a new pollution rule is reasonable, or whether it would be too great a burden on a regulated industry. Every EPA-proposed air pollution rule has faced lawsuits from polluters who seek to weaken or overturn them. Wheeler’s actions would make it easier for polluters to win those lawsuits.
Here’s how his proposed technical change would harm people in the real world:
Cutting smokestack emissions of mercury requires companies to burn cleaner fuels (gas or oil instead of coal) or stop burning fuels entirely (solar, wind, hydro, etc.). Changes made to power plants that result in fewer mercury emissions routinely result in fewer sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides being emitted too. Because sulfur and nitrogen are not the primary targets of the rule, those reductions are not counted as direct benefits. They instead are counted as side-benefits. In this case, the side-benefits of tougher mercury rules are reductions in smog, soot, microscopic carbon particles and acid rain.
The EPA estimates that the direct benefits of the recently enacted mercury rule to be only $4 million to $6 million annually. This seems dubiously low. Mercury can cause organ, nerve and brain damage and is a known cause of birth defects. Mercury emissions consist of heavy particles that fall to earth very close to the smokestack. The rest become aerosols that can circle the globe before they hit land or water. The costs of mercury aerosol pollution is hard to assess, so EPA really doesn’t bother to. So we are left with an unrealistically low estimate of the direct cost of mercury damage.
Meanwhile, the side-benefits of preventing smog and acid rain are much, much greater – in the tens of billions. Avoiding smog and fine particles of soot means enormous reductions in the costs associated with lung disease, health care, lost production/missed work and premature deaths. Acid rain damage only adds to those costs. Avoidance of these expenses more than justifies the cost of implementing the mercury rules (EPA says: $7 billion to $9.5 billion).
Currently, EPA can count the health benefits of both reduced mercury (birth defects, brain damage) and reduced sulfur/nitrogen when determining the public health and environmental impacts. The proposal by EPA would change that method, allowing EPA to count only the direct benefits from cutting mercury.
This would make the mercury rule appear to be very expensive, and not worth the investment by industry. It seems very unlikely that a federal court would approve mercury rules that only promise a total of $6 million in benefits, while costing $9 billion to implement.
Next up on Wheeler’s agenda is replacing the Obama administration’s carbon rule, the Clean Power Plan (CPP), with the weaker Affordable Clean Energy Rule. The CPP would have reduced carbon pollution nationwide by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. In addition, it would have produced a side-benefit of an additional cut in sulfur and nitrogen pollution of about 10 to 12 percent each by 2030. The proposed replacement doesn’t mandate any carbon cuts and therefor will have no significant side-benefits.
The Adirondack Council calls on Acting Administrator Wheeler to withdraw this proposal to alter the mercury rule and protect the Adirondacks and the people of the North Country from acid rain, smog, soot and mercury.