Op-ed by James Morton Turner and Andrew C. Isenberg
A week ago, the Trump administration proposed a radical change in environmental regulations that could undermine future efforts to curb air pollution. Despite its far-reaching implications, the proposal has drawn little attention amid the urgencies of the government shutdown and the new Congress. Three alarming things stand out about the announcement: its timing, its justification, and its place as part of a larger rollback of environmental protections.
The first cause for alarm is the timing of the announcement: it was released on the Friday between Christmas and the New Year. Trump’s EPA chose to announce the proposed rule change when many journalists and editors would be on vacation and when much of the public has tuned out the news for the holidays. It is hard to imagine timing better calculated to escape public and media scrutiny.
The Trump administration has good reason to want to avoid such attention. Environmental protection laws have remained broadly popular since they were first enacted in the early 1970s. Since the mid-1980s, the Gallup organization has asked Americans whether environmental protection or economic growth should be prioritized. At only one point—the four years following the 2008 economic collapse—did a majority prioritize the economy. In 2018, 57 percent of Americans agreed that protection of the environment should be a priority, even at the cost of curbing economic growth.
The second cause for alarm is the Trump administration’s justification for the rule change. Like many environmental laws, the rules regulating mercury emissions are in essence public health laws. The Obama administration, which put the current rules in place in 2011, justified the cost to utility companies of roughly $7 to $10 billion per year by pointing to the health benefits to Americans. Although the Obama rule targeted mercury emissions, which is a potent neurotoxin that disproportionately affects children, reducing mercury emissions also reduces emissions of particulate matter. The Obama administration estimated that such emissions caused 4,700 heart attacks, 130,000 asthma attacks, and 11,000 premature deaths every year. Putting a price on co-benefits is complicated, but the Obama administration estimated that those and other benefits amounted to $80 billion a year.
What is so troubling is that the Trump administration’s proposed rule does not change the emissions limits for mercury. Instead, it eliminates the EPA’s ability to factor co-benefits, such as the health benefits from reduced particulate matter emissions, in its cost-benefit analyses no matter how significant they are. This is just one more example of conservatives’ efforts to highlight the costs of environmental regulations, while downplaying their benefits.
Consider the Acid Rain Program, which George H.W. Bush signed into law in 1990. By 2010, the program’s annual cost was $3 billion, less than half of what critics had projected 20 years earlier. The program prevented 18,000 premature deaths annually by 2010, a benefit economists estimate to be worth $108 billion annually. And electricity costs, which critics predicted would skyrocket as a result of the regulations? They fell for consumers in most states between 1990 and 2009.
Finally, the proposal to roll back the mercury emission regulations is part of a pattern of conservative Republican environmental deregulation. The Trump administration has rolled back scores of environmental protections. His administration has loosened regulations restricting industrial pollution, opened up new federal lands to fossil fuel exploration, made unprecedented reductions to national monuments, and initiated the process to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement. The Trump administration has further proposed to significantly reduce the scope of the Clean Water Act, reduce vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, and roll back Obama administration regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to global warming.
Yet the Republican antipathy to environmental protection long preceded the Trump administration. Over the last thirty years, as the Republican Party has become increasingly beholden to fossil fuel interests, it has set out to gut the environmental protection laws that, ironically, a more moderate Republican party had helped to craft and enact in the 1970s.
So it is no coincidence that most of the Trump administration’s changes to environmental laws are aimed at benefiting the fossil fuel industry. The benefits of the most recent proposal, like most of the other environmental law changes Trump has advocated, will favor a handful of corporations. The changes in how the EPA counts the benefits of environmental regulations will lead to diminished health and shortened lives for thousands of Americans every year. That’s why the Trump administration is trying to slip this proposed rule change past the public when they think no one is looking.