Scott Pruitt has created another dustup in environmental circles with an announcement that his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will cast a wider net for information about the impacts of enforcing the nation’s landmark Clean Air Act.
The announcement set off alarm bells because Pruitt is hell-bent on weakening if not eliminating environmental regulations that are a cost or inconvenience for industry. Pruitt has more motivation than ever to trash EPA. It’s what has kept him in his job so far despite the many recent revelations of his abuses of taxpayer money. But neither the EPA nor the Clean Air Act were created to serve industry; their overriding mission is to protect public health.
Google searches failed to turn up a copy of Pruitt’s new directive, but the Associated Press reported, “EPA will ask its advisory committees to consider and advise Pruitt on how enforcement affects the economy, health and welfare, energy and society, and will seek input from state and local government, Indian tribes and others on the pollution limits.”
That innocent-sounding directive is controversial, the AP explained, because “Federal law and U.S. Supreme Court decisions require the EPA to focus on public health – not costs – in setting limits for smog, soot and other pollutants under the Clean Air Act.” Yet in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that EPA had been unreasonable because it did not consider the cost associated with regulating power plant pollution.
This confusion aside, there seems nothing wrong with seeking a better understanding of the effects of clean air regulations across the several sectors Pruitt listed. The information could help EPA determine whether there are less costly or more effective ways to achieve the same or superior improvements in air quality. The devil lies in the details and in Pruitt’s real motive, however, and his record justifies suspicion that he intends to make the case that air regulations hurt the economy, hobble industry and cost jobs – the tired talking points routinely recited by opponents of government rules.
The most important issue, and the one to be watched closely, is whether EPA seeks, gets and weighs accurate information about the benefits as well as the costs of air regulations. Any benefit-cost analysis should take into account that there is no moral equivalency between saving polluters money and saving the American people from the illness and deaths caused by air pollution. If Pruitt and his advisory committees venture into a benefit-cost analysis, they will find, as previous rigorous studies have found, that the former greatly outweighs the latter.
In 1990, Congress required EPA to conduct scientifically reviewed studies on how the Act was affecting public health, the economy and the environment. After six years of research and expert review, EPA produced three reports, each using best available data and modeling tools to estimate the cost and benefits of the Clean Air Act.
In the last of these reports, the Agency calculated that from 1990 to 2020, the benefits of clean air regulations will exceed their costs by more than 30 to one. Most of the benefits will be due to preventing early deaths. The Act had saved millions of lives since 1970 including 160,000 lives in 2010 alone, EPA found. It predicted that enforcing the Act would save 230,000 lives just in 2020, and its economic benefits would reach $2 trillion that year.
President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget calculated in 2013 that EPA’s various regulations cost the economy as much as $45 billion, but produced up to $640 billion in benefits. Virtually all of the benefits came from the regulation of air pollution.
We can argue forever about the cost of clean air and we probably will. The costs of enforcing the law and scrubbing pollution are easily quantified while many of the benefits – the value of a human life or a healthy child, for example — are not. But if it’s the economic costs we are worried about, we already know from actual experience that we can grow economies at the same time we cut air pollution, including the emissions responsible for the increasing instability of the weather.
We also know this Administration’s extreme bias about regulating those emissions. President Trump refuses to acknowledge that global climate change is real. Pruitt does not agree with the scientific consensus that man-made pollution is responsible for it. They therefore are not inclined to believe there are any benefits at ato regulating the pollution that causes global warming.
Many more skilled and unbiased analysts than Pruitt’s have shown that ignoring air pollution costs much more than regulating it. We know that any worthwhile benefit-cost analysis must count all of the consequences of pollution, direct and indirect, tangible and intangible. Unfortunately, we also know that if we want this Administration to be objective about the true costs of pollution, we probably shouldn’t hold our breath.