Scott Pruitt's Plan to Bring Economics Into the Clean Air Act Is Dangerous

Illustration for article titled Scott Pruitts Plan to Bring Economics Into the Clean Air Act Is Dangerousem/em
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Here we go again: The Environmental Protection Agency wants to sacrifice clean air for—you guessed it—money.

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Last week, administrator Scott Pruitt released a “Back-to-Basics” memorandum to reform the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) review process under the Clean Air Act. This is pretty common practice; every five years, the agency is supposed to review the criteria air pollutants regulated under these standards (which include ozone and particulate matter, two priorities under this plan).

But, well, the agency never completes the review in time, reports E&E News. So part of Pruitt’s new five-point plan is to meet deadlines and make this process move faster. At the same time, Pruitt wants to inject economic impacts into the review process, something many advocates, as well as at least one congressman, have taken issue with.

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“Getting EPA and its advisors back on track with Clean Air Act requirements, statutory deadlines, and the issuance of timely implementation rules will ensure that we continue the dramatic improvement in air quality across our country,” wrote Pruitt in a press release.

That’s fine, but the agency has also got to do its “due diligence,” as former environmental justice administrator at the EPA Mustafa Santiago Ali, who’s now with the Hip Hop Caucus, told Earther. And as the agency continues to reduce protections from these pollutants, that five-year deadline could become tougher to meet. As he was sure to point out, the new science advisers within the agency have little expertise in public health. They’re more about industry.

Those industry advisors, at least, should be happy to help Pruitt figure out how to include economics in the new standards. The problem there is, economics isn’t supposed to have anything to do with these standards. Health and science are.

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This is according to one of the dudes who helped write the Clean Air Act, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine. Oh, and the Supreme Court, which made it clear in 2001 “that the EPA may not consider implementation costs in setting the NAAQS.”

Still, that’s exactly what Pruitt is proposing the agency do. The memorandum asks the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee to “please advise the Administrator of any adverse public health, welfare, social, economic, or energy effects which may result from various strategies for attainment and maintenance of such NAAQS.”

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Economic benefits are important. But should they take priority over human lives? Jeremy Orr, who sits on the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, doesn’t think so. Especially because those suffering the most from air pollution, low-income families and communities of color, are already offered little protection from the government.

“To say we’re going to consider economic impact really means that economic impact is going to be weighted the most, as far as I’m concerned,” Orr said. “It’s already detrimental under the current standards, which effectively are supposed to be protecting communities of color.”

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Orr plans to raise his concerns with Administrator Pruitt in their next meeting this summer, and he urges the public to speak out too, during the public comment period which comes later. “It’s important to stand up and say, ‘Economic impacts should never be taken as a priority to environmental health,’” Orr said.

Ali expects the EPA to push this review process through. He sees this as another attempt on behalf of the EPA to “weaken science” and, in turn, “manipulate policy.” Just last month, the agency proposed new science standards on what studies the EPA can use to create policy, which could ultimately exclude important public health studies. Last fall, it cut scientists who receive EPA grant funds from its science advisory board.

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“By adding this additional layer of criteria,” Ali said, speaking of the proposed look into economic impacts, “they’re going to try and weaken this so that those who come from oil and gas and coal will have a standard that’s not as stringent.”

Ali is a no-bullshit kinda’ guy. Air pollution is already costing tens of thousands of lives in the United States. Weaken these already-frail protections, and those numbers can only go up, he said.

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Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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DISCUSSION

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Oh, and the Supreme Court, which made it clear in 2001 “that the EPA may not consider implementation costs in setting the NAAQS.”

This will result in a lawsuit like everything the EPA does, but the issue is not quite this cut and dried (environmental law never is). The EPA is indeed barred from considering economic impacts in setting the standard, but not in determining the various emissions control options that are necessary to achieve the standard. It’s also required to estimate the costs even though they don’t enter into the decision.

Put another way, NAAQS sets limits for various pollutants under various conditions. For example, the current standard for ozone is 70 ppb. Let’s say the advisory committee recommends lowering it to 65 ppb, as it did the last time it came up for review. The EPA, in deciding whether to accept that advice or leave the standard alone, cannot consider the costs that will be borne by the owners of ozone-emitting sources.

However, once the standard is set, there is a fairly byzantine array of rules that govern what happens if you are operating an ozone source in an area that exceeds the current standard (known as non-attainment). The thing to understand here is that the ozone standard is a regional one, not a site-specific one. This is in part because there are both natural and human sources of air pollution. But if you operate an ozone source, there are certain events that require you to upgrade your emissions control technology, for example if you undertake a major upgrade. In deciding what exactly you have to do, the EPA can consider the economic impact.

There is a lot more to it than this, and none of it is to suggest that Pruitt is approaching the issue honestly. They would love nothing more than to torpedo the entire scheme if they could. But they can’t repeal the Clean Air Act, so they’re going to dick around with implementation as long as they can.

If you’re masochistic enough to want to dive deeply into it, there’s a good summary of the whole mess here.