By William S. Becker

Donald Trump’s slash-and-burn campaign against federal regulations may be impressing his base, but it has produced more smoke than fire. The online news magazine Slate reports that nine of every 10 Trump attacks on regulations have been defeated in court so far.

This does not mean that Trump’s deregulation campaign is harmless, however. When a rule involves environmental protection such as reductions in climate-changing pollution, the Trump Administration’s attack causes some degree of turmoil in energy markets, among energy investors, and in energy policies at state and local levels. At minimum, Trump’s ideologically driven deregulation campaign slows down efforts at every level of society to mitigate the adverse consequences of climate change.

In addition, there is an even more important result. Trump’s people are trying to change the way the government quantifies the costs and benefits of regulations so that rules seem less important and killing them seems less harmful to the American people, the economy, and the environment. Trump is cooking the books, playing loose with the numbers and engaging in mathematical manipulations to make the government’s environmental rules look disposable.

This is a trend that Congress must stop, starting with an investigation by the House Energy Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations chaired by Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado.

Trump calculates that deregulation is politically popular because few of us want the government telling us what we can and cannot do. Trump routinely blames rules for killing jobs and hobbling enterprise. But federal regulations do not deserve the bad rap they are usually given. They are the principal way that the Executive Branch implements the laws that Congress passes. Without the regulations that implement the Clean Air Act, for example, many more industries would pollute with abandon and many more Americans would get sick or die from exposure to toxins in air and water.

The most important environmental problem in the United States, and worldwide, is global climate change. The most important cause is carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution from power plants and vehicles. The Sabin Center at the Columbia Law School, one of several organizations tracking Trump’s deregulation campaign, has documented 118 cases so far where the Administration has modified, repealed or manipulated climate-related regulations.  The New York Times documents 83 (see chart). In many of those cases, the Administration’s objective is to allow unbridled production and use of fossil fuels responsible for global warming. Examples range from opening 9 million acres of natural habitat to oil and gas drilling to allowing new coal-fired power plants to emit more CO2.

Sometime this summer, the Administration plans to finalize the weakening of two of the most important climate-change rules – the Clean Power Plan, which created the first-ever constraints on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, and new fuel efficiency standards for vehicles. 

Meanwhile, in the background, the Administration is manipulating the way the government counts the benefits and costs of regulations. Its motive is to make fossil fuels look more benign and to make constraints on those fuels look less important. For example:

  • Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) originally estimated that an additional 1,400 Americans would die prematurely if the current rule – the Obama Administration’s “Clean Power Plan” – is weakened. The Administration didn’t like that number, so it changed the way it calculated deaths so the body count would be lower.
  • Last fall, Trump’s people manipulated the formula for calculating the social cost of carbon (SCC). The SCC is a method to more accurately quantify the social and environmental consequences of carbon-based energy – consequences that typically were not considered in the past. Under President Obama, an interagency team and the National Academy of Sciences determined that the social cost of carbon in 2020 would be $51 a ton. To make fossil fuel emissions seem less harmful, Trump’s people changed in the formula to bring the SCC down to the $1 to $7 range.
  • The Administration has finalized a plan to allow higher levels of ethanol to be used in gasoline during summer months. Until now, the use of E-15 – a mixture of 15% ethanol and 85% gasoline – was restricted during the summer because scientists determined that in warmer temperatures, the fuel causes more ground-level ozone pollution and smog. EPA reportedly is permitting the change by deciding that the fuel does not need to be covered by a regulation regarding fuel evaporation. At present, more than 140 million people live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone and/or particulate pollution. The American Lung Association ranks ozone as one of the least controlled and most dangerous pollutants in the U.S., responsible for lung cancer, asthma, respiratory infections, and heart problems. It probably is no coincidence that the Administration is finalizing the rule change just in time to mollify corn farmers who produce ethanol feedstocks and are being hurt by Trump’s tariffs.
  • The Washington Post reports that the Administration’s is conducting an oblique attack on the Economic Research Service (ERS), an independent statistical agency in the Department of Agriculture. The ERS keeps track of things like poverty, food stamps, trade, and climate change. Among the ERS’s analyses are the difficulties that Trump’s trade war is causing farmers and how little the 2017 tax reforms helped small farms. The Post says the Administration has decided to relocate hundreds of ERS employees to other cities. That is a well-known backhanded way to force federal employees to quit because they do not want to uproot their families and school-age children. The result, the Post reports, has been unusually high numbers of employees leaving their jobs at the ERS since the plan was announced.
  • Every four years, scientists from 13 federal agencies issue a National Climate Assessment to provide the latest information on the expected impacts of global climate change in the United States. The first report during the Trump Administration was issued last November. It concluded that “Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth.” That conclusion directly contradicts Trump’s position that climate change is nothing to worry about. Now, the New York Times reports, federal scientists will not be allowed to assess the long-term impacts or to describe worst-case scenarios of climate change in the United States. In effect, Trump is ordering federal scientists to tell the American people less than the whole truth about the climate risks ahead.  There will be consequences. Without good projections of what the impacts of climate change will be decades from now, we are making energy policies in the dark.
  • Slate reports that Trump’s EPA is skewing benefit-cost analyses to ignore the “co-benefits” of environmental regulations. These are the spin-off benefits that people receive beyond the principal objective of a rule. In regard to mercury pollution, EPA wants to ignore a finding that reducing the population’s exposure would save as much as $90 billion in health-care costs.
  • EPA proposed a rule last year that would ignore scientific studies on the harmful health effects of pollution when the studies rely on information like personal patient data that cannot be disclosed to the public.

There are two questions worthy of congressional oversight here. First, is Trump faithfully executing the responsibilities of his office, as the presidential oath requires, such as carrying out the letter and intent of America’s environmental laws? Second, should Congress commission the National Academy of Sciences to recommend precisely how the benefits and costs of environmental regulations are calculated, and codify the methodology in law so neither Trump nor future presidents can get away with cooking the numbers?

This is important. Trump’s war on federal regulations is actually a war on the health, welfare, and future of the American people. The President would like his Administration to cover that up.