By Angela Anderson, Union of Concerned Scientists
Washington’s latest parlor game involves predictions about the number of days left in Scott Pruitt’s tenure at the EPA. There’s even a website where you can place bets on it and some very funny memes and gifs on the internet. Amid the controversies over discounted condos, high priced furniture, self-important sirens, and questionable personnel practices, the outrage over Pruitt’s policies is getting lost in the noise. If his ethical lapses result in his ouster, what’s to stop his replacement from continuing the destruction of nearly half a century of environmental progress?
Not much. The nominated second in command, Andy Wheeler, is awaiting confirmation in the US Senate to become the Deputy Administrator. Wheeler is a well-known as a lobbyist for the coal industry and former staffer for the senate’s leading climate denier, Senator Jim Inhofe, serving on the Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) staff for 14 years. If Pruitt gets the boot, Wheeler will most likely be the acting Administrator. Unlike Pruitt, Wheeler worked for the EPA early in his career and has played key roles in Congressional oversight of the agency and its budget, making him a formidable opponent with intimate knowledge of the agency’s programs and regulations.
Senate climate deniers at the EPA’s helm
Wheeler will join Inhofe alumni that already occupy the chief of staff and deputy chief of staff positions at the EPA. Pruitt’s senior advisers on air, climate and legal issues are also former Inhofe staff, as are the top domestic and international energy and environmental advisers to President Trump. A Senate Democratic aide speaking off the record warned, “These are folks who are very capable. They know the agency and its programs. They’re smart and hard-working, and they certainly could dismantle the programs if they were asked to do that. But the question is how they will react if they’re asked to do that.” Another former Capitol Hill staffer said , “I think Andrew is very similar to Scott Pruitt’s approach in understanding under EPA’s regulatory scheme that states have the priority over federal overreach.” Given Wheeler’s tenure with the Senate EPW committee and his coal company client list, it is safe to assume that he will continue the repeal of climate regulation and the assault on the Clean Air Act.
Crooked math on air pollution
Unfortunately, Wheeler is likely to move forward on changes to the way the EPA assesses costs and benefits of regulation that was buried in its proposed regulation gutting the Clean Power Plan (CPP). The CPP was an Obama era regulation aimed at reducing emissions of carbon dioxide to reduce the risks of climate change. UCS economist Rachel Cleetus commented that, “[t]oday’s proposal to repeal of the Clean Power Plan uses crooked math to artificially lower the benefits of the pollution reductions that standard would have brought. The EPA fails to account for the fact that actions to cut carbon emissions also pay large dividends by reducing other forms of harmful pollution like soot and smog.”
The “proposed repeal outlines a flawed approach to evaluating the risks of pollution — specifically particulate matter, which is a mix of very tiny particles emitted into the air. When inhaled, this pollution can cause asthma attacks, lung cancer and even early death,” according to the American Lung Association. Harold P. Wimme, the national president and CEO of ALA and Stephen C. Crane, Ph.D., MPH, the executive director of the American Thoracic Society, argue that “[t]he [Trump] EPA has cherry-picked data to conceal the true health costs of air pollution. Its revised calculations diminish and devalue the harm that comes from breathing particulate matter, suggesting that below certain levels, it is not harmful to human health. This is wrong. The fact is: There is no known safe threshold for particulate matter. According to scores of medical experts and organizations like the World Health Organization, particle pollution harms health even at very low concentrations. Attempting to undercut such clear evidence shows the lengths the EPA, and by extension the Trump administration, will go to reject science-based policy that protects Americans’ health.”
What Mr. Pruitt, Mr. Wheeler and the Trump Administration don’t want you to know is that actions taken to reduce carbon also reduce the air pollution that causes illness and death. A forthcoming analysis of the proposed change to the way the EPA assesses health benefits in the from Kimberly Castle and Ricky Revesz from the Institute for Policy Integrity at the NYU School of Law finds that:
The benefits from particulate matter reductions are substantial for climate change rules, accounting for almost one half of the quantified benefits of the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. These benefits are also significant for regulations of other air pollutants, making this issue one of far-reaching importance for the future of environmental protection.
Opponents of environmental regulation, including the Trump Administration, have recently embraced an aggressive line of attack on particulate matter benefits. They argue alternatively that these benefits are not real; are being “double counted” in other regulations; or should not be considered when they are the co-benefits, rather than the direct benefits, of specific regulations….An examination of the scientific literature, longstanding agency practices under administrations of both major political parties, and judicial precedent reveals that particulate matter benefits deserve a meaningful role in regulatory cost-benefit analysis.
Pruitt’s EPA has also indicated plans to adopt a policy similar to legislation that House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has unsuccessfully pushed for years, over the objection of the country’s leading scientific societies. The policy builds on a strategy hatched in the 1990s by lobbyists for the tobacco industry, who invented the phrase “secret science” to undermine robust peer-reviewed research on the harmful impacts of second-hand smoke. The goal back then was to create procedural hurdles so that public health agencies couldn’t finalize science-based safeguards.
Climate and health
The US Global Change Research Program found significant health impacts from climate change, and documented several linkages between climate and air quality. “Changes in the climate affect the air we breathe, both indoors and outdoors. The changing climate has modified weather patterns, which in turn have influenced the levels and location of outdoor air pollutants such as ground-level ozone (O3) and fine particulate matter.” It also found that climate change will make it harder for any given regulatory approach to reduce ground-level ozone pollution in the future as meteorological conditions become increasingly conducive to forming ozone over most of the United States. Unless offset by additional emissions reductions, these climate-driven increases in ozone will cause premature deaths, hospital visits, lost school days, and acute respiratory symptoms.
Temperature-driven changes in power plant emissions are likely to occur due to increased use of building air conditioning. A recent study in Environment Research Letters compared an ambient temperature baseline for the Eastern US to a model-calculated mid-century scenario with summer-average temperature increases ranging from 1 C to 5 C. Researchers found a 7% increase in summer electricity demand and a 32% increase in non-coincident peak demand. Power sector modeling, assuming only limited changes to current generation resources, calculated a 16% increase in emissions of NOx and an 18% increase in emissions of SO2.
Wheeler and Clear Skies
While at EPW, Andy Wheeler was the Bush Administration’s point person on Clear Skies – an ironically named effort to essentially gut the Clean Air Act proposed in 2003. The bill would have significantly delayed the implementation of soot and smog standards and delivered fewer emissions reductions of Nox and SO2 than strict implementation of the existing Clean Air Act would deliver. Wheeler not only negotiated the bill to near passage (a tied committee vote killed the bill in 2005), he carried out Inhofe’s intimidation effort against an association of state air quality officers, asking the group to turn over six years of IRS filings and all records of grants they received from the EPA.
President Trump claimed to want the EPA to focus on clean air and clean water. But his defense of Pruitt on Twitter and his nomination of Wheeler as Deputy Administrator makes clear that he has no idea of what it takes to deliver clean air to the American people. The Trump Administration’s priority is to reduce regulation on industry at the expense of the health and well-being of America.