The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday overhauled the Obama administration’s “dishonest” method of determining the costs and benefits of its regulations on mercury emissions from power plants, saying it wildly exaggerated the health benefits.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler emphasized that the federal mercury standards on emissions from oil- and coal-fired power plants would remain unchanged, but that the agency had revised the method of calculating the costs of hazardous air pollution.
“Let me be clear: Under this action, no more mercury will be emitted into the air than before,” said Mr. Wheeler on a press call. “Anyone suggesting so is either purposely misreading this action or simply does not understand it. What will change is how costs and benefits are to be considered so that they are consistent with the Clean Air Act and the Supreme Court’s decision.”
Even so, the announcement met with fierce opposition from Democrats and environmentalists, who accused the agency of seeking to prop up the coal industry by defanging the 2012 Mercury and Air Toxics Standards [MATS], setting the stage for a future legal challenge.
“That the EPA is willing to put the whims of a handful of coal companies ahead of the lives of Americans is unconscionable,” said Waterkeeper Alliance attorney Larissa Liebmann. “This rollback will kill people.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, accused the administration of loosening “pollution rules during a global outbreak of an infectious disease that causes respiratory illness,” while Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer said the agency was “actively endangering American lives.”
After the Supreme Court ordered the EPA to take into account the rule’s costs in 2015, the agency issued a 2016 supplemental finding that concluded the benefits far outweighed the costs by including particulate matter as a “co-benefit” of the mercury regulations.
The EPA found that total monetized health and environmental benefits were between $37 billion and $90 billion a year, while compliance costs were $9.6 billion, but Mr. Wheeler said the problem was that “99% of the benefits used to justify the rule were attributed to particulate matter.”
After particulate matter was removed from the equation, Mr. Wheeler said the benefit of the reduced hazardous air pollutants came to no more than $6 million annually, or three orders of magnitude higher than the $9.6 billion cost.
“Yet when adjusted to focus on reductions in mercury and other ATS, which were the targeted pollutants, the benefits dropped down to $4 to $6 million annually,” said Mr. Wheeler. “Under the Obama-era approach, the cost-benefit scales are set so any regulation could be justified regardless of cost. We believe this approach is not only dishonest but also counter to the Clean Air Act.”
U.S. power plants account for less than 2% of global mercury emissions, while China discharges more than 25%, India emits 9%, and the European Union accounts for 4%, according to a 2018 United Nations report based on 2015 post-MATS estimates.
“This is another example of the EPA, under the Trump Administration, following the law while making reasonable regulatory decisions that are fully protective of the public health and environment,” Mr. Wheeler said.
Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, said the Obama administration “blatantly abused the rule-making process by vastly overstating the benefits of the original MATS rule as part of their ‘war on coal.’”
“While it is unfortunate that so much coal-fired electricity generation was taken off line because of the original rule, at least future presidents can no longer abuse their authority to advance radical, anti-coal political agendas at the expense of the American people,” Mr. Pyle said.
The Environmental Protection Network said the value of taking into account fine particles included “thousands of lives saved by MATS each year, hundreds of thousands of illnesses avoided each year, and avoided damage to the developing brain of the unborn.”
“This action, which is a gift to the coal industry at the expense of all Americans, is an attack on public health justified by a phony cost-benefit analysis that purposely inflates the cost of MATS and ignores the value of the human health benefits,” said Ellen Kurlansky, former EPA air policy analyst. “Based on that deception, EPA says that the benefits of MATS aren’t worth the cost.”
The EPA also found that no changes to the MATS rule were needed under the Clean Air Act’s required risk and residual technology review.
Rep. Greg Walden, Oregon Republican and ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he appreciated the agency’s work “to maintain the existing standard and to correct the deficiencies in the previous Administration’s cost-benefit analysis.”
“Today’s decision is an important step in improving the environmental regulatory process while simultaneously prioritizing environmental protection,” he said.