EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler stepped up his attack on the Mercury and Air Toxics standards, finalizing a rule that undermines protections from mercury emissions from coal fired power plants. This attack would be disturbing no matter what – but coming as it does on the heels of a slew of attacks on our clean air protections, while we are fighting the respiratory pandemic COVID-19, it heightens the suspicion that Wheeler is using the coronavirus as cover while he pushes through his radical deregulatory agenda.
Mercury pollution is a fighting issue for moms, because it is especially harmful to pregnant women, babies, and children. It damages the architecture of the developing brain. Thankfully, we know where it comes from and we know how to fix it, which is why we’ve been supporting the mercury standards since Moms Clean Air Force was founded. Once these rules were implemented, starting in 2011, they have been effectively protecting our babies’ brains and bodies from irreversible, preventable harm.
That’s why it’s so galling that, since 2018, Wheeler has been trying to weaken these standards. A diverse coalition of stakeholders has been opposed to Andrew Wheeler’s mercury sabotage since he first introduced the proposal in December, 2018. Doctors, scientists, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and even the regulated industry itself have been asking: Why is Wheeler doing this?
One important answer comes from the infamous “wish list” that coal baron Bob Murray provided to the Trump administration just weeks after the inauguration in 2017, in which Murray essentially listed ending mercury regulations as one of his explicit requests. Oh, hello: Murray also donated $300,000 to the Trump inauguration committee. So, this was a special request from the chairman of the largest coal company in the country, following a generous gift to the inauguration pomp.
Part two of that answer comes from Andrew Wheeler’s personal resume: He spent years as a highly-paid lobbyist for, that’s right, Murray Energy, taking millions from the company in exchange for promoting its agenda to lawmakers.
These two facts are essential background for evaluating Wheeler’s claims that, with last week’s attack on the mercury rules, he is instituting what he dubs “honest accounting” to compensate for regulatory overreach. This is bunk.
Wheeler’s attack on mercury protections isn’t a technical “fix” to an Obama-era “error” – instead it sets the stage for a sweeping relaxation of pollution rules by making it harder to justify the cost of new regulations. According to Carol Browner, who headed EPA from 1993-2001, the Wheeler mercury rule “radically change[s] how the agency undertakes cost benefit analysis.” She characterized the Wheeler attack as a “sinister Trojan horse policy” that “will undermine how EPA considers science and evaluates economic benefits of regulations in the future.”
A cost-benefit analysis takes into account the total benefits to human health of implementing a given regulation when calculating its cost – in this case, the cost of installing scrubbers that remove mercury and other air toxics from smokestack emissions, compared to the health benefits of preventing that pollution from harming people. According to Joseph Aldy, Harvard professor and lead author of an April article in Science titled “Deep flaws in a mercury regulatory analysis”: “We want to understand how the world is different if we implement a regulation,” he said. “This is a bipartisan tradition going back to Reagan. This is standard practice and included in EPA’s own guidance.”
Luckily for breathers – and food lovers, because mercury ends up in our large fish like tuna – everywhere, those scrubbers have the added benefit of removing deadly particulate pollution from the coal plant emissions, in the process saving thousands of lives and preventing tens of thousands of asthma attacks.
Apparently Wheeler wants to pretend those added benefits do not exist. Wheeler’s mercury attack dramatically undercounts the benefits – claiming that the only relevant benefits are those that come from reducing the mercury pollution, despite the fact that the scrubbers are also reducing deadly particulate pollution. Yet, as Browner explains, “you can rest assured on the cost side that they are counting every single thing, trying to run up that number.”
One thing that runs up the number on the cost side? Wheeler’s mercury attack assumes that all of the original underlying assumptions about the costs of the rule – from back in 2011 – are still accurate today. They are not. The implementation of the rule has been far less expensive than industry expected it to be. This is, as Aldy explains, “like asking my college students to use only what they have learned through fourth grade on their final exam in my course. That would not earn good marks.”
The upshot of all this voodoo accounting is that the costs appear to far outweigh the health benefits – because the costs are inflated, and major health benefits are ignored. And the upshot of that, if Murray gets his wish, is that pollution restrictions get relaxed across the entire range of clean air protections.
This is a giveaway to big polluters that will be paid for with many thousands of lives, especially those in vulnerable communities. As Aldy remarked, “I would say that the science and economics behind this decision are flawed. But in reality, there is no science behind this decision. It’s simply just a flawed decision.” Moms could not agree more.