EPA Changes Math to Allow Burning of More Coal

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The Trump administration continues to erode US regulation in many areas – especially of the environment, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies advancing policies to benefit the fossil fuels industry.

The latest depredation: changing a calculation method so as to understate the health risks of air pollution, and thereby allow states to decide how (or whether) they will regulate coal-fired power plans. As The New York Times reported yesterday in E.P.A. Plans to Get Thousands of Deaths Off the Books by Changing Its Math:

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to change the way it calculates the health risks of air pollution, a shift that would make it easier to roll back a key climate change rule because it would result in far fewer predicted deaths from pollution, according to five people with knowledge of the agency’s plans.

The E.P.A. had originally forecast that eliminating the Obama-era rule, the Clean Power Plan, and replacing it with a new measure would have resulted in an additional 1,400 premature deaths per year. The new analytical model would significantly reduce that number and would most likely be used by the Trump administration to defend further rollbacks of air pollution rules if it is formally adopted.

The proposed shift is the latest example of the Trump administration downgrading the estimates of environmental harm from pollution in regulations. In this case, the proposed methodology would assume there is little or no health benefit to making the air any cleaner than what the law requires. Many experts said that approach was not scientifically sound and that, in the real world, there are no safe levels of the fine particulate pollution associated with the burning of fossil fuels.

The Trump EPA’s final version of its Affordable Clean Energy Rule is slated to be made public in June.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) says in Trump EPA’s Fake Math: Clean Air Doesn’t Save Lives, So Burn More Coal that experts say the new methodology is unsound and hadn’t been reviewed by independent scientists:

It ignores decades of research by EPA scientists, instead relying on “unfounded medical assumptions” that there is no benefit to air that is any cleaner than is required by law – even when those standards are not strictly based on protecting health but are the product of political and economic compromise.

“Using fake math to hide the death toll from dirty air at the behest of the coal industry is sadly consistent with the Trump administration’s complete disregard for public health,” said Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., EWG’s senior science advisor for children’s environmental Health. “This sleight of hand means that more adults may die early and more children may become victims of asthma.”

The Trump EPA’s goal is clear: it wants to rescind its predecessor’s Clean Power Plan, which would have capped emissions from coal power plants. The EWG notes:

EPA’s own career scientists previously estimated that the Clean Power Plan would prevent up to 4,500 premature deaths and 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks in children, and lead to climate and health benefits worth up to $93 billion in 2030.

The Trump EPA’s replacement, the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, will leave it up to states to decide how or whether they will regulate pollution from coal-fired power plants. It is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by a paltry 1.5 percent by 2030, far below the 30 percent target under the earlier proposal.

States Step in to Regulate the Environment

The new EPA rule will undoubtedly be subject to legal challenge once it’s issued, and it’s impossible to predict what the ultimate legal resolution will be.

Does this mean the outlook for environmental regulation is as bleak as it seems, at least until a new president is inaugurated (assuming Trump doesn’t secure a second term)?

Not exactly.

The Washington Post  published a comprehensive piece on 20th May, States aren’t waiting for the Trump administration on environmental protections, detailing several areas in which state regulators have stepped in to advance state-level environmental protection measures:

More than a dozen states are moving to strengthen environmental protections to combat a range of issues from climate change to water pollution, opening a widening rift between stringent state policies and the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda.

In recent months, Hawaii, New York and California have moved to ban a widely used agricultural pesticide linked to neurological problems in children, even as the administration has resisted such restrictions. Michigan and New Jersey are pushing to restrict a ubiquitous class of chemical compounds that have turned up in drinking water, saying they can no longer wait for the Environmental Protection Agency to take action.

Colorado and New Mexico have adopted new policies targeting greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel drilling and limiting where these operations can take place. And more than a dozen states have adopted policies that would force automakers to produce more fuel-efficient cars than required by federal standards.

The Post account decried the uncertainty and compliance burdens the ramping up of various state measures imposes on US businesses – which now must comply with a patchwork of state regulations, rather than uniform federal standards.

The Post account described several intitiatives. I’ll mention one here: requiring more fuel-efficient cars. Fourteen states, including California, and the District of Columbia, are bucking administration policy on this issue.

Breaking New Legal Ground

Not mentioned in the Post account, but another area in which states are pioneering new approaches to reducing – and paying the costs arising from climate change – is climate liability litigation. New York last year filed a federal lawsuit against five major oil companies for their contributions to climate change. That suit was dismissed, but is under appeal (see this account in Climate Liability News, NYC Files Appeal, Challenges Dismissal of Climate Liability Suit for further details).

Hawaii is now mulling its legal options. As Climate Liability News reported in Hawaii Leaders Mull Potential of Climate Liability Cases:

Lawmakers and experts met in Honolulu earlier this month to discuss current trends in climate litigation and how Hawaii could leverage its own laws to recoup damages brought by climate change.

“Oil companies like BP should be held responsible for the damage done to our environment by their activities,” Sen. Mazie Hirono said at the climate conference, explaining why she co-drafted a friend-of-the-court brief in support of climate liability lawsuits filed by the cities of Oakland and San Francisco.

Such legal action could put fossil fuel companies on the hook for damages. The state of Rhode Island, cities of New York, Baltimore, Oakland and San Francisco and Boulder as well as counties in California and Colorado are among those that have filed lawsuits against the fossil fuel industry, a wave of claims that has spread from exclusively coastal regions to inland jurisdictions.

Hawaiian law makes it a particularly congenial jurisdiction for bringing such lawsuits, according to Climate Liability News:

Hawaii’s laws concerning indigenous rights provide additional grounds for the state to bring potential climate lawsuits, the panelists said. The state follows U.S. common law and recognizes indigenous rights. Courts as well as state and county agencies are constitutionally mandated to protect “all rights, customarily and traditionally exercised for subsistence, cultural and religious purposes and possessed by ahupua‘a tenants who are descendants of native Hawaiians.”

In addition, the state has been at the forefront of initiatives to address climate change:

Hawaii was the first state to implement legislation that aligns with the Paris Agreement and is one of several states with environmental rights provisions in their constitutions. The state’s legislators want Hawaii’s proactive climate policy––which includes committing the state to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045 and a proposal for the state to become the first to tax carbon emissions––to set an example for climate change mitigation worldwide.

The Bottom Line

We’re a long way away from the state of play when a Republican President, Richard Nixon, created the EPA via a reorganisation plan (see my post,  Happy Earth Day 2019). The Trump administration’s environmental record is atrocious. In the climate change area, it’s highly unlikely that Trump will step up and endorse a Green New Deal anytime soon – although, to be sure, with Trump, it’s never quite clear just what he might decide to do next. Recall that old New York Lotto ad: You never know…

Leaving that extreme possibility aside,  states and municipalities are at the moment the key battleground. Policymakers are not powerless, and can advance initiatives to protect their citizens in the face of federal inaction on crucial environmental issues.

If these initiatives are well-crafted, they can provide models for a future time  –  which I hope is not too far distant – when more environmentally-minded policymakers fill federal positions again.


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  1. Edward

    Wonderful– another departure from the “reality based community”. Flint, Michigan seems to be the model for the country, rather then a “never again” scenario.

    1. zer0

      Dont put your money on the EPA. My wife worked as a pro-bono lawyer fighting to get Exxon and CVS to clean up their mess in multiple superfund sites in Illinois.

      You’d think the EPA would be ALL OVER pro-bono legal work. Nope. In fact, they often took the side of Exxon and CVS. Upon talking to the mayor of a small town called DePue (which has been trying to get Exxon to cleanup their toxic land spill for over 50 years), she found out that the EPA lawyers would go to lunch with the Exxon lawyers right before the meetings.

      She even found that the EPA didnt even understand ITS OWN LEGAL CODES. They routinely underestimated or changed wording in the courts to try to undermine their own position.

      So in conclusion, nothing happened, my wife wrote a journal article about it, and left. 7 years spent collecting data, underlining the EPAs framework, only for the case to be mired in the courts again…over 50 years mind you.

      There is no such thing as environmentalism in the US. When the market/large corporations are involved, nothing ever happens how it is described legally. Now its almost so blatant one can only wonder how the rule of law even existed, and if it always was based on wealth and power.

      1. Edward

        The EPA sure didn’t distinguish itself at Flint. There is a writer at Black Agenda Report who used to work at the EPA, and she wrote an essay opining that the EPA was hopelessly corrupt, and should simply be disbanded and a new agency created.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          What would stop the corrupters from hopelessly corrupting the new agency which this author would want created?

    1. BlueMoose

      I realize the article is US centric, but in a lot of countries (Poland for example, where I live at the moment) coal is much cheaper than gas. And Poland has a lot of coal. There are lots of complaints each year about the pollution, but at the end of the day, if you need to stay warm and funds are limited, you are going with coal. Or worse.

      Lots of poor people burn trash, plastic, god knows what in old furnaces to stay warm. It is scary to see the plumes coming out of some chimneys.

      Regarding EPA/pollution in general. As long as money is to be made you can forget about regulations or rather enforcement of regulations to happen. It is only going to get worse IMHO as people scramble to keep the lights on and stay warm.

      1. JBird4049

        Thinking on this I realize that like many people in France the poor, the working class, even much of the precariate labeled as the lower middle class in America need their cars to commute long distances or use trucks and other vehicles in their small businesses. Businesses often in the back of the beyond. So gas prices and taxes on gas can really bite and usually there is no alternative.

        This is the reason I get annoyed at the casual belief that ⅓ of the Republic and the poorest part at that should somehow do something about moving to some urban areas or cities because the environment demands it. Maybe if we recreated the extensive railroad system and the inter and intra light rails that used to be so common first or develop practical long range affordable electric vehicles or even multi fuel hybrids that even a working class person could buy?

  2. John Zelnicker

    The deregulatory agenda pushed by Trump and his minions just gets more deadly by the day.

    Thanks, Jerri-Lynn for keeping us apprised of these developments. The MSM and even some of the alternative media are so wrapped up in Trump that these sorts of actions don’t get nearly the publicity they should.

    One quibble. At the end of your section on the Post article, you wrote that you would mention one state initiative, which you did. I was expecting the next section to be a survey of the various state initiatives, and was just a bit disappointed that you moved on to the next topic. I assume it was due to space limitations.

    1. Svante

      He ain’t alone and it’s not exactly new for EPA to play the numbers game, especially when the deaths are across the border? https://theecologist.org/2014/dec/05/appalachia-small-citys-fight-against-toxic-waste-incineration We’re waiting the “creative class” and retiring ex-yuppie boomers to confront ethane, coal, bitumen along with CAFO & Agricultural chemicals, as they retreat from coastal enclaves? https://www.citylab.com/equity/2019/05/costs-of-living-map-home-price-salary-wage-premium-city-data/589894/?utm_source=feed

  3. Wombat

    Furthermore, modern mountain top removal coal mining permanently destroys our nation’s landscapes and leaves community water and soils covered in the toxic debris, rendering their population susceptible to cancer and birth defects. The premise is deceptively “creating coal jobs”. The days of labor intensive coal shaft mining are largely over. But over the last 40 years a few companies with massive earth movers have topped half of Appalachia in Kentucky and West Virginia.

    A good resource on the damage done so far:

  4. fries

    Haven’t seen anything about the very recent Australia voting results on NC. Did I miss it? In case I didn’t, the pro-coal candidate won in a surprise to no one except the media.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      I included an article about the Australia vote in the 5/19/19 Links — it was discussed in comments that day.

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