The Trump administration might be weakening the case for future climate change policy by removing an important metric that lowers the cost of reducing carbon: simultaneous cuts to conventional air pollution.
EPA is considering whether it will count the co-benefits that come along with cutting greenhouse gases, like the health gains from reducing particulate matter. Narrowing the scope of health benefits achieved in climate-focused regulations would sharply curb the public health estimates used to justify their existence, according to experts.
It may also complicate future efforts to craft climate policy.
"It is just a way to make these rules look less cost-effective," said Janet McCabe, acting EPA air chief under former President Obama.
While there is no requirement that a rule be cost-effective, that is a significant part of the public discussion over its usefulness, she said.
"If you quit smoking because you don’t want to get lung cancer, well, you’re also getting all the other benefits you get when you quit smoking," McCabe said. "You can exercise more, your breath doesn’t smell as bad, it affects your weight in positive ways, whatever all those things are, those are real benefits that make a difference in people’s lives. Why would it not be appropriate to consider them?"
EPA under President Trump has argued that the Obama administration overestimated the value of its carbon dioxide regulations, such as the Clean Power Plan and its rules to reduce vehicle emissions. It has provided its own accounting that has reduced the economic impact of Obama’s climate legacies. The agency is now reconsidering how it accounts for the co-benefits of reducing mercury pollution. The mercury rule would also reduce conventional air pollutants.
In June, EPA released a notice of proposed rulemaking for "Increasing Consistency and Transparency in Considering Costs and Benefits in the Rulemaking Process." It signaled a potential move to re-evaluate the way multiple pollutants are addressed under one regulation.
"The monetized benefits from one of the pollutants being directly regulated (i.e., mercury) were significantly lower than the estimated costs of the rule, and the quantified benefits in the regulatory impact analysis outweighed the costs because of the benefits from reductions in ambient fine particulate matter," officials wrote. "Similar criticisms have been made regarding the extent to which EPA has considered key uncertainties, baseline assumptions, and other analytical factors in quantifying both benefits and costs relevant to decision making."
On Monday, acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said he did not trust the health accounting of the previous administration’s rulemaking.
"We believe the math the Obama administration used is a little suspect," he told reporters at an event touting children’s health protections.
Using co-benefits to craft regulations has been an important part of EPA’s job of protecting public health for decades, said William Reilly, the EPA administrator under former President George H.W. Bush. Considering co-benefits can dramatically expand the scope of public health protections included in a regulation, he said.
These co-benefits often have nothing to do with reducing carbon dioxide, but they are impossible to ignore. For example, regulations that cut chlorofluorocarbons, which deplete the ozone, also yield a substantial reduction in greenhouse gases, Reilly said.
"We’re always aware of those, they matter. Every decisionmaker takes them into account, and oftentimes they tip the balance of things you might not do if you didn’t know you were going to get several bangs for the buck," he said. "There are some places where the co-benefits are more important than the stated purpose of the law."
There is some disagreement as to whether reducing co-benefits could restrain future climate policy.
McCabe said that considering ancillary benefits was largely an accounting activity for the White House Office of Management and Budget. Not all regulations are required to have a balance of cost. But she said cutting the value of a rule would make it easier for industry and opponents to attack it, and that could be included in future litigation.
"You can imagine where the costs would be quite significant and where the benefits maybe don’t overwhelm the cost, but it’s still the right and lawful and good policy to do," McCabe said. "Some things are easier to quantify than others, so climate benefits are just not as easy to quantify. Also, certain types of air quality benefits are harder to quantify and always have been."
The changes under Trump don’t necessarily make it harder to craft climate regulations, said John Graham, a former head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under President George W. Bush and a current member of EPA’s Science Advisory Board, to which he was appointed by former Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Yet reducing co-benefits could weaken some climate rules if they are dependent on economic balance, he said.
"If a climate regulation is based on cost-benefit balancing, then removal or reduction of co-benefits will ultimately result in a less stringent climate regulation than would occur if the co-benefits are counted fully," he wrote in response to emailed questions.
"On the other hand, if the climate regulation is based on a climate-stabilization goal (i.e., achieving a specific level of CO2 in the atmosphere) or on a technological-feasibility standard, then the revised treatment of the co-benefits would not affect the stringency of the climate regulation. There are many climate scientists/engineers who are pushing for regulations based on climate science/engineering, not cost-benefit."
Others see it as a major transformation of the way EPA develops climate policy, and one that could have a lasting effect. The discounting of co-benefits could be part of the agency’s overall strategy to reduce pollution controls on industry, said Joe Goffman, executive director of the Harvard Environmental Law Program and a former Obama EPA official and architect of the Clean Power Plan. He said it could become part of the agency’s legal strategy to defend its replacement of the Clean Power Plan.
"It makes it easier to defend doing nothing if you take away the co-benefits," he said. "There is almost a monomaniacal pursuit of every opportunity they have to suppress the valuation of the public health benefits of reducing pollution."
It’s part of a longtime strategy by coal companies, conservative think tanks and lobbyists to weaken EPA’s ability to do its work, he said. And while a number of Pruitt’s efforts at EPA were defeated in the courts, eliminating co-benefits could be more legally durable, he said.
Discounting co-benefits from climate rules could land the agency in court, perhaps even the Supreme Court, Goffman said. Both Chief Justice John Roberts and nominee Brett Kavanaugh have expressed doubt about the necessity of considering co-benefits in regulations.
"Pruitt may have taken actions that were not well-designed for long-term success, but Pruitt was the point of the spear with a very long shaft," Goffman said. "There has been a coalition of ideologues and interests that have been pushing for all of what we’ve seen this year in this area for a very long time, including through legislation. … What we’re seeing is the staying power that this coalition of ideologues and interests seems to have."