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Trump’s EPA Can’t Even Cook the Books Right

The agency fudged the numbers to prove Obama's signature climate regulation wasn't worth the cost and still came up short.

Mark Wilson/Getty

“The EPA’s mission is to ‘protect and enhance the quality of the Nation’s air resources,’ but...”

That’s the most telling half a sentence in the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature climate change regulation, the Clean Power Plan. Expected to be announced officially on Tuesday, the plan will allow coal-fired power plants to emit unlimited amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—and along with those greenhouse gases, harmful air pollutants like particulate matter, ozone, and sulfur dioxide. So after the ominous “but” that disrupts the EPA’s boilerplate explanation of its mission, the document lowers the boom: “the Agency must do so within the authority delegated to it by Congress.” And Congress apparently never gave the EPA the authority to put climate regulations on the dirtiest source of electricity in the country.

It’s been known for some time that EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has never intended to follow his agency’s core mission. Pruitt’s own agenda, as his meeting records and own statements have shown, is to serve the polluting interests that have bolstered his political career for so long. But it’s far from clear how he’s going to manage this particular industry favor. Repealing the Clean Power Plan means providing a legal argument that will hold up when environmentalists inevitably challenge Pruitt’s plan in court. White House lawyers will counter that the Obama administration acted beyond the scope of the Clean Air Act when it created this regulation—while also arguing that the regulation is too financially burdensome on the coal industry, while providing little benefits to the climate or public health.

The latter case will be an especially tough sell in court. If the draft proposal released on Monday is any indication, the agency is setting itself up to fudge those numbers. EPA officials will exaggerate the costs that Clean Power Plan enforcement will impose on coal operators, and dramatically underestimate the benefits—which means that they’ll ignore both mainstream science on air pollution’s health impacts and the global economic costs of climate change. And even when it embarks on this cherry-picking expedition, the EPA still winds up showing that the benefits of cutting carbon outweigh the costs. Experts versed in the issue contend that only an accounting scenario based in scientific malpractice can show otherwise.

Make no mistake: The Clean Power Plan was always going to be costly to coal. That was kind of the point—and the Obama administration admitted as much. But Obama EPA administrators also argued that the health and climate benefits would more than make up for the industry’s losses. Here’s the gist of their math: Cutting U.S. carbon dioxide emissions 32 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2030 would cost the coal industry $8.4 billion a year—but it would also save an annual $34 billion to $54 billion per year. That was the range they fixed for costs that the United Sates would avoid in mitigating both climate change and health impacts arising from air pollution. Nor were the relevant gains only financial: Each year, the Obama administration said, the Clean Power Plan would prevent 3,600 premature deaths, 1,700 heart attacks, 90,000 asthma attacks, and 300,000 missed work and school days.

President Donald Trump’s EPA is gearing up to dispute those numbers. Pruitt’s agency contends that the regulation could cost up to $33 billion a year by 2030, instead of $8.4 billion. But this is fuzzy, self-interest math, critics say: the agency is strategically leaving out huge savings that power companies would achieve from energy efficiency investments, according to a New York Times op-ed published by New York University law professor Richard L. Revesz and the Institute for Policy Integrity’s Jack Lienke. “In most of its new analyses, the Pruitt-led EPA ignores these savings when calculating the costs of the plan,” they wrote. “As a result, the EPA’s cost projections now include almost $20 billion of generating expenses for electricity that the agency’s own analysis shows would not be produced with the plan in place.”

The EPA is also significantly writing down the health and climate benefits that could be achieved from the Clean Power Plan. Contrary to the Obama estimates running as high as $54 billion, Pruitt’s team suggests the relevant savings would work out to just $20 billion to $24 billion per year. But this is only in one scenario in which the agency wildly misrepresents air quality science, according to Dan Cohan, an environmental scientist at Rice University who specializes in air quality management.

To get to the lower $20 billion number, Cohan said the agency disregards the health benefits of reducing pollution to a level below our national standards. “The EPA is ignoring the fact that people would be even healthier if they breathed air cleaner than what we require,” Cohan said. “And that goes against everything we know from hundreds of papers and the epidemiology literature. We know there are health benefits to making the air even cleaner. This has no basis in scientific understanding.

In order to get this tiny number, Cohan said the EPA also has to ignore all global social and economic benefits from reducing climate change, and only include benefits created in the United States. Critics say that’s ridiculous: “In our globally interconnected economy, major climatic (and economic) disruption in other countries will inevitably affect American pocketbooks,” Revesz and Lienke wrote. But others, like industry lawyer Jeff Holmstead, say it’s “reasonable to count only the rule’s U.S. benefits since Americans would be paying the costs,” according to a report in Politico.

But even as the EPA downplays the global climate benefits of the Obama plan for Clean Air implementation, the majority of its scenarios still show that the Clean Power Plan saves more than it costs. When the EPA sides with the scientific mainstream—which says human health is improved with cleaner-than-required air—it shows that health benefits will outweigh the rule’s cost to the coal industry by $17 billion to $28 billion in 2030. And when the EPA ventures beyond the mainstream consensus to endorse the findings of some scientists who say there are no health benefits to reducing particle pollution below 5 to 8 micrograms, the resulting calculations still show up to $13 billion in net health benefits. To arrive at any scenario where the Clean Power Plan costs more than it saves, the EPA has to overlook global climate benefits and the methodology of nearly all settled scientific research on air quality. And if mainstream air quality scientists don’t agree with that method, it’s unlikely it would hold up in court.

So when it comes to repealing the Clean Power Plan, the EPA can cooks the books all it wants. It still can’t prove we’d be better off if we cook the planet.