By James Goodwin, Center for Progressive Reform
Soon after his confirmation, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt quickly set out to take a “whack-a-mole” approach to advancing his anti-safeguard agenda, attacking particular rules designed to protect Americans and the environment from specific hazards – climate change, various air and water pollutants, and so on – one by one. But with his latest set of proposals, he’s looking to recreate EPA in his own pro-polluter image by instituting extreme and systematic changes in how the agency does its work. The result would be a radically different EPA – one that puts corporate profits ahead of the public’s well-being – with changes aimed at making it easier for the agency to undo a host of safeguards already in place while making it far more difficult to adopt new ones in the future.
His most recent target is the way EPA conducts the economic analyses of the standards and safeguards it develops. Pruitt and EPA imply a host of reasons for proposing to overhaul the agency’s examination of benefits and costs in the advance notice of proposed rulemaking they published on June 13. But underlying those justifications, some of which are factually inaccurate and legally unsupportable, is the thrust of Pruitt’s actions since taking the helm at EPA: To rig EPA’s policies and procedures to make it easier to push through an anti-safeguard agenda that leaves people and the environment exposed to a host of hazards. In doing so, Pruitt is attempting to pick winners and losers through public policy. The winners: Polluters and his corporate special interest benefactors. The losers: The rest of us.
Polluting industries don’t like it when objective analyses of clean air, clean water, and other environmental protections show that the health and safety benefits to the American people outweigh costs to industry – sometimes by as much as 25 to 1.
To get around this pesky bit of reality, Pruitt’s proposal would allow him to put his thumb on the scale of analyses of crucial environmental and public health protections, now and years into the future. This would make it far less likely that safeguards will be put in place to ensure we all have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and healthy communities in which to live and thrive.
For example, the proposal suggests Pruitt would like to ban EPA from considering the full scope of real-world benefits of environmental protections by ignoring their enormous “co-benefits.” Rules that limit mercury pollution from power plants or that cut down on their heat-trapping greenhouse gases also improve overall air quality and help people with asthma, other respiratory conditions, and heart disease. By ignoring those “co-benefits,” Pruitt could falsely understate the effectiveness of those rules and chill current and future EPA action to protect Americans from harmful air pollution. At the same time, he’d create a pretext to justify regulatory rollbacks of existing safeguards so as to please polluters at the expense of people’s health and quality of life.
No clear legal authority exists to support this action – Pruitt’s advance notice is conspicuous in its failure to cite a legal basis for the action – nor can Pruitt point to any rational policy basis that would justify this move. Pruitt’s office and even some coverage of his benefits-busting proposal have made misleading claims about supposed cost-benefit analysis mandates in environmental laws. In fact, those laws use varying approaches, all of which involve some form of consideration of costs and benefits, but that ultimately require EPA to reconcile different social, ecological, and economic factors in different kinds of ways for different kinds of environmental threats. How we decide to reduce toxic air pollution from oil refineries should be different from how we decide to control nutrient pollution from wastewater treatment plants. The one constant is that nearly every approach directs EPA to prioritize environmental and public health protections ahead of industry profits and other economic factors.
In contrast, the type of cost-benefit analysis EPA and other federal agencies have been undertaking since the Reagan administration stems from a series of executive orders, not federal law. And Pruitt’s proposal suggests that he is pushing for the adoption of a type of across-the-board cost-benefit analysis at the agency. Such a super-mandate would amount to an illegal end-run around Congress.
And of course, this effort is not occurring in a vacuum. In addition to bolstering the Trump/Pruitt ideological agenda of deregulation, this proposal would work hand-in-hand with Pruitt’s push to restrict the agency’s use of scientific evidencewhen developing health and environmental safeguards. Together, they would deliver a one-two punch that could cripple EPA’s ability to implement and enforce our nation’s landmark environmental laws, like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and more.
To learn more about this dangerous attack on our health and the environment, you can watch and listen to a webinar that CPR Member Scholar Amy Sinden and I presented on June 27. Check it out below. I also recommend a look at today’s Los Angeles Times op-ed from CPR President Rob Verchick.
You can help protect the public interest by pushing back against this proposal. EPA is accepting comments until Friday, July 13, and CPR has pulled together a topline analysis to assist you in developing them. You can also follow CPR on Twitterand Facebook, where we’ll be providing tweets, posts, and graphics for all to share.