Remember when Acid Rain was killing forests, contaminating waters and soils, and even corroding bridges and houses?
The scourge ended in the United States after President George H. W. Bush (the father, not the son) championed and then signed the Clean Air Act of 1990, adding tight caps on electric utility emissions of sulphur and nitrogen oxides (SOx and NOx) to the original 1970 legislation.
At the time, right wingers went apoplectic – predicting everything from rolling blackouts and soaring energy costs to a nationwide recession – while left wingers had the opposite fear; they believed the cap-and-trade component would let industry “buy its way out” of its clean air obligations.
Both extremes were wrong, and Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was proven right: benefits far outweighed the costs.
The Agency used a time-tested (and legally-mandated) process of public consultation and scientific review, taking into account thousands of submitted opinions to address the known costs and benefits – both direct and indirect, or from the cost of adding scrubbers to smokestacks to the benefits that cleaner water and air have on the health of people, plants, and animals.
Such forward-looking projections are always subject to debate, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has made a career out of attacking them, so conservationists were skeptical when he put out a call for public input into whether the agency should change its long-standing practices for evaluating costs and benefits, ostensibly to ensure continuity between administrations.
Sara Chieffo, vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, is among those who smelled a rat.
“His claim that benefits have been inflated in EPA regulatory decision making is simply not borne out by the facts,” she told Inside Climate News last week. “In today’s far-reaching announcement, he is doing nothing short of cooking the books so that polluters always win, and people always lose.”
Where to Draw the Line?
A key question that Pruitt’s asking is where we draw the line when evaluating benefits, and the answer to that could have far-ranging repercussions for the Agency’s rule-making parameters.
An independent analysis of the 1990 Act, for example, found that it saved local communities more than $122 billion per year – or $40 in savings for every $1 spent – not just by reducing Acid Rain, but by reducing health costs.
Those benefits to human health, however, don’t come from reductions in SOx and NOx, but from reduced emissions of carcinogens and other pollutants that are filtered out in the same process that reduces the oxides.
Should they, then, be included in the cost-benefit calculus?
That’s one of the questions that Pruitt is asking, and answering “no” would dramatically alter the cost-benefit assessment related to government policies that lower pollution.
Organizations like the Institute for Policy Integrity have already accused Pruitt of ignoring the economic benefits of healthy ecosystems when trying to implement Trump administration water policies, and the Trump administration has also slashed the US government’s officially-recognized “social cost of carbon” from $36 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted to less than $6 per ton, even as the scientific consensus spirals upward.
Whatever the motives, this is a critical opportunity for people and organizations to weigh in on a rule that could have consequences for years to come.
The deadline for submissions is Friday, the 13th of July, 2018.