EPA Strikes Lives Saved as Intangible Benefit in Pollution-Control Studies

This 2017 aerial photo shows the Standard Oil Refinery in El Segundo, Calif., with Los Angeles International Airport in the background and the El Porto neighborhood of Manhattan Beach, Calif., in the foreground. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — No longer counting tangential benefits in cost-benefits analyses for pollution controls, the Environmental Protection Agency adopted a rule change Wednesday expected to impede clean-air efforts.

The move is the latest in a series of EPA rollbacks issued ahead of President Donald Trump’s departure from office in January, having just this week rejected its own expert’s recommendations to increase smog controls.

Over the last four years, Trump’s administration has rolled back more than 125 environmental policies and hopes to roll back 50 more. 

“Today’s action ensures that EPA is consistent in evaluating costs and benefits when developing broad-reaching policies that affect the American public,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement Monday, thanking Trump for ensuring “future rulemakings under the Clean Air Act are transparent, fair, and consistent with EPA governing statutes.”

Outlined in a 113-page document, the Trump administration’s new change shifts the way the agency performs cost-benefit analysis (known inside the agency as BCA for benefits-minus-costs analysis) when considering new regulations to focus more heavily on financial costs versus financial benefits. 

The agency’s new cost-benefit analysis tells the agency to account for all the economic costs of regulating air pollutants without considering various incidental benefits that new pollution curbs might bring, like reducing pollution-caused human diseases or deaths and increasing quality of life.

“While based on the same underlying conceptual framework, social benefits and social costs are often evaluated separately due to practical considerations. The social benefits of reduced pollution are often attributable to changes in outcomes not exchanged in markets, such as improvements in public health or ecosystems,” the document explains. “In contrast, the social costs generally are measured through changes in outcomes that are exchanged in markets. As a result, different techniques are used to estimate social benefits and social costs.”

Emily Davis, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, blasted the move in a statement Wednesday.

“This is an egregious 11th-hour attempt to handcuff the incoming administration and undercut the benefits of clean air — in the worst days of a global health crisis,” Davis said. “Our country is struggling to address racial injustice and a deadly pandemic magnified by pollution, which all heavily impact Black, Latino and low-income people. The Biden administration should deep-six this dishonest and dangerous rule — and allow EPA to re-embrace its core mission, which is to protect public health and our environment.” 

Wheeler announced the change at an online event for the conservative group, the Heritage Foundation. Heritage senior research fellow Daren Bakst said in an email Wednesday that the call for transparency in these calculations has been long standing and bipartisan.

“The new rule requires that important information on the costs and benefits of significant Clean Air Act regulations be made available to the public,” he said. “It is shocking that some would criticize this important effort. After all, the American public should know whether agencies are issuing rules that do more good than harm.”

Wheeler maintained the new rule would not stop his agency from taking into consideration indirect benefits of reducing air pollution Wednesday.

Social cost calculations will include “reductions in societal well-being, incurred as a result of the regulation or policy action,” the rule states. “These opportunity costs consist of the value lost to society of all the goods and services that will not be produced and consumed as regulated entities reallocate resources to comply with the regulation.”

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