Advisory Panel Slams EPA Proposal To Overhaul Clean Air Accounting Methods

June 9, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem

WASHINGTON – A panel of scientists on Tuesday slammed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to overhaul accounting methods used to evaluate the various economic and social costs of clean air regulations.

Last week, the agency proposed a new set of guidelines that it said would “improve” the transparency of its cost-benefit analysis of pollution standards by getting rid of “co-benefits.”

Co-benefits are pollution reductions that aren’t required by a rule, but occur as a result of its adoption. The Office of Management and Budget defines a co-benefit as “a favorable impact of [a] rule that is typically unrelated or secondary to the statutory purpose of the rulemaking.”

For instance, the main benefit of the EPA’s mercury rule is to reduce mercury pollution, but a major co-benefit of the rule is the reduction of particulate matter. 

According to research by the Brookings Institute, environmental co-benefits tend to garner a lot of attention because they represent large sums of money. The EPA’s mercury rule, for example, has a projected co-benefit of $36 billion to $89 billion. 

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry, billed the move to get rid of co-benefits as a push for more “honest” accounting methods. “Thanks to President Trump’s leadership on fixing broken regulatory mechanisms, today’s proposed action corrects another dishonest accounting method the previous administration used to justify costly, ineffective regulations,” he said in a statement.

But experts from the EPA’s Science Advisory Board have criticized the proposed guidelines for failing to clearly assess the impact of air regulations on human health and the environment. “The SAB recommends explicit, consistent text throughout the report on the importance of accounting for all benefits associated with a regulation or policy,” the panel said in a report published last week. “The draft guidelines are far too vague about the inclusion of ancillary impacts — co-benefits and co-costs.”

The changes were also criticized by a number of advocacy groups who said they ran afoul of the EPA’s core mission.

“We urge the Environmental Protection Agency to maintain and enhance consideration of co-benefits and social costs in regulatory analyses,” said Richard Corey, executive officer of The California Air Resources Board, in a statement. “We also urge the agency to refrain from rulemaking that is unlikely to enhance consistency or transparency, but is likely to result in bias and delay in fulfilling the agency’s mission and duty to protect public health and the environment.”

Meanwhile, top executives from oil and gas trade organizations have applauded the EPA’s latest move as a positive step towards easing restrictions on businesses and accelerating the country’s economic recovery.

“Through Administrator Wheeler’s proposal, EPA must now be consistent and transparent with the data and analysis used to justify decisions in its rulemaking efforts,” said Anne Bradbury, CEO of the American Exploration and Production Council, a lobbying group for natural gas and production companies. “These reforms help to avoid federal rules that could otherwise hurt American workers, businesses and our economy.”

The Trump administration has previously used similar policy changes to weaken restrictions on pollutants. In April 2019, the EPA announced it would no longer consider co-benefits to assess the impact of restrictions on the release of mercury. 

Since 2017, the EPA has rolled back dozens of Obama-era environmental rules that Trump says place an unfair economic burden on the fossil fuel industry.

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