EPA Administration Weighs Costs and Benefits with Regulation Rollback

Living on a Superfund site, you’d never know that the Environmental Protection Agency is currently being reigned in and pared down at an alarming clip. While Superfund has been a noticeable priority for the current administration, many EPA budgets and regulations are facing extreme cuts. There are some 83 regulation rollbacks completed or in the works as it stands now, far exceeding the president’s campaign promise for 2 regulations eliminated for each one proposed.

We don’t have time here to go through all 83 regulations, but I thought I’d mention a few, and take a closer look at one or two.

There are 18 rollbacks in the drilling and extraction regulations, many of them opening up previously restricted areas or loosening cleanup requirements. Several will have impacts in Montana, including mine bonding requirements, the approval of the Keystone pipeline, and they also weakened protection for the Sage grouse, effectively opening up 9 million acres of land to oil and gas, many of them here in Montana.

Some of the rollbacks affect planning and streamline processes. For example, they restricted Interior Department environmental studies to one year and a 150-page report. These have all been favorable to business, lifting requirements for reporting or limiting oversight.

There are a number of air pollution regulations that have been cancelled, including many that had been aimed at curbing climate change. Some were modest efforts, like requiring companies to report methane emissions or eliminating HFCs in air conditioners, but they have all been scrapped. Others were more procedural, like withdrawing guidance that greenhouse gas emissions be included in environmental reviews or ending the use of Obama era calculations that included a “social cost of carbon”.

Like these, many of the overturned rules fell to new economic standards. Andrew Wheeler, former coal industry lobbyist and current administrator of the EPA, has instituted a cost-benefit-analysis approach to all regulation. Here he is explaining it from an interview with Daniel Davis:

AW: “We owe it to the American public to explain to them what are the costs of a regulatory action and what are the benefits.

What we did last year is we proposed a regulation that would have applied cost-benefit analysis across the board to all of our regulations. We took a look at that, we took comments on it, and we decided the better approach would be to require that under each of our statutes because each statute has a different scientific basis, each statute has a different regulatory basis.

We’re going to move forward first under the Clean Air Act, and we’ll have that done by the end of this year. We will propose a new regulation that will require cost-benefit analysis to be done for all the Clean Air Act regulations, and then we will go statute by statute across all of our major statutes under the EPA jurisdiction.”

For an agency charged with protecting human health and the environment, these analyses include things like quantifying risks to children from a toxic chemical or permanent damage to an aquifer. And the EPA is changing the ways they calculate these costs. They are eliminating items like the long-term externalized costs of coal emissions or ignoring toxicity data that are not conclusive.

When dealing with toxic chemicals, it is generally considered prudent to use the precautionary principle, to err on the side of caution when the risks are uncertain. However, the EPA has adopted a more “innocent until proven guilty” stance on toxics and cut funding to 13 research centers that study the associations between chemical exposures in early childhood and later adverse health outcomes.

In their latest move, the EPA rejected a proposed ban on chlorpirofos, a pesticide and neurotoxin. This was contrary to their own experts who have linked the chemical to serious health effects in children and recommended the ban. The chemical and agriculture industries had lobbied hard to avoid the ban, and apparently their benefits outweighed the costs.

This was the second toxic substance the EPA declined to ban this year, also on the proposed list was asbestos. As we know from what happened in Libby, asbestos is a carcinogen and a major health threat, but EPA again ignored its own scientists and disregarded the call for an outright ban, as most developed countries already have.

Many of the rollbacks are friendly to coal. There are handful that are directly aimed at easing regulations on coal plants, and many more that will accomplish that indirectly.

This includes the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, which would have limited carbon emissions from power plants. Instead the Agency is proposing state management, and this is a common refrain from Wheeler, give the authority back to the states.

AW: “the Clean Power Plan, which is the Obama regulation and the ACE, the Affordable Clean Energy rule, which was our regulation to address greenhouse gases from the electric power sector, is that we rebalanced it. We gave the authority back to the states.

What the Obama administration tried to do was make all of the energy decisions at the federal level about what types of fuel different states should be able to use. That’s not the role of the federal government. That’s not the role of the EPA.

That authority has historically been with the states and the state public utility commissions. So we have rebalanced that and returned that authority back to the states. And that’s just one example, but we’re doing that in all of our regulatory efforts.”

But unfortunately, air pollution doesn’t recognize state borders, and the carbon dioxide generated in states like coal-friendly Wyoming won’t stay there.

It’s worth noting that many of these rollbacks are still in the proposal stage, and even those that have been finalized will face legal scrutiny. They must still uphold federal laws like the Clean Water Act, but with sympathetic courts there is room within the interpretation.

So what about Superfund? It has been a priority and has seemingly escaped unscathed. It’s easy to see why, politically, Superfund does not hamstring business or cost jobs and profits the way many EPA regulations do. But it remains to be seen if the priority is to conduct the best cleanups, or just to delist sites and move on.