Trump’s EPA is ‘cooking the books’ to justify its attack on clean air rules

Experts call it a “deeply cynical strategy” that puts lives at risk.

A plume of exhaust extends from the Mitchell Power Station, a coal-fired power plant built along the Monongahela River, 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. (Photo credit: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
A plume of exhaust extends from the Mitchell Power Station, a coal-fired power plant built along the Monongahela River, 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. (Photo credit: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working to distort the way it measures the benefits of some of the agency’s most impactful policies, regulations that safeguard human health by limiting air pollution. The primary beneficiary of such distortion? The coal industry.

When the government evaluates the health and financial benefits of clean air, the calculation typically incorporates the number of lives saved and the scale of reduced health impacts thanks to reducing pollution — also known as “co-benefits.” Incorporating these factors into a cost-benefit analysis forms the very foundation upon which many environmental protections are based.

But now, experts warn the EPA is opening the door to industry challenges to these clean air rules by changing the way it evaluates the long-accepted science on the risk of particulate matter — microscopic particles polluting the air that are linked to increased heart attacks, strokes, and respiratory disease.

The agency may also be laying the groundwork, experts say, for using these “biased and misleading” calculations in other policy contexts. That fear was stoked by a new EPA memo released this week, ushering in a formal process to change the way the agency calculates its cost-benefit analysis across a slew of issues, from water pollution to pesticides.


It is well-established that reducing air pollution saves lives — a fact backed up by numerous scientific studies and government reports. In fact, a 2017 report from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) found that out of all federal rules, the EPA’s had the “highest estimated benefits as well as the highest estimated costs.” The costs and benefits capture everything from the new equipment required by power plants to the co-benefits from Americans’ reduced exposure to pollution.

What’s more, regulations designed to improve air quality accounted for over 95% of the benefits from EPA rules. When it comes to fine particle pollution, OMB said the benefits of regulation “far exceed” the costs.

Nonetheless, the EPA is now arguing that the calculation used to determine the costs and benefits of air pollution regulations needs to be changed. The agency is exaggerating the costs of these rules while downplaying their ecological, climate, financial, and health benefits so that it can more easily defend its sweeping rollback of environmental protections — changes that are often in line with industry demands.

The EPA’s proposed revisions to this math would reduce the number of lives at risk from repealing the Clean Power Plan and drastically downgrade the projected benefits of retaining the Mercury and Air Toxics standards (MATS) regulating power plant pollution. By eliminating the use of co-benefits, these policy changes don’t look as bad.

“Both approaches are means by which unscrupulous agency officials can cook the cost-benefit books and distort the debate about the value of health and environmental protections,” James Pew, a staff attorney at EarthJustice, told ThinkProgress. “They’re a way to rationalize rolling back these protections, or not establishing them in the first place.”


On Tuesday, the EPA released a memo directing four agency offices to “rectify… inconsistencies” regarding the process for calculating risks and benefits. This includes offices overseeing air pollution, water pollution, land contamination (including Superfund sites), and chemicals and pesticides.

The direction, issued to staff on May 13, codifies and expands an effort to effectively “cook the books” that was initiated by former Administrator Scott Pruitt. In April 2018, Pruitt told attendees at a meeting held at the Heritage Foundation – a think tank known for promoting climate science denial – that he would stop counting the co-benefits of environmental policies.

It is “potentially the first step to a systematic attack on use of co-benefits.”

This trend in fudging the numbers goes back to 2017, when the EPA under Pruitt made what appeared to be a few small changes to a metric known as the social cost of carbon – a figure that agencies use to determine the climate benefits of a particular regulation. In this case, the EPA argued it should only have to calculate how methane emissions reductions benefit the United States alone, a complete reversal from how these costs are typically calculated.

One of the main regulations currently in the agency’s cross-hairs is the MATS rule; introduced in 2011, it established federal limits on hazardous pollution from power plants. The regulation targets chemicals like mercury that can cause serious health impacts such as tremors, respiratory failure, and death. Coal plants are the biggest emitters of this toxic pollution.

The EPA’s own calculations show these regulations save upwards of 17,000 lives each year. Yet the agency is now arguing that the policy is too costly, claiming it costs industry $9.6 billion per year while only producing up to $6 million in benefits — significantly fewer benefits than what the Obama administration said the policy creates.


According the Obama-era calculations, the MATS rule would save $80 billion, in part due the co-benefits of costs avoided through fewer hospital visits and other health care spending resulting from poor air quality.

Among these benefits are ones that come from reducing pollution 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller (PM 2.5, for context, is 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair). While pollution standards set a limit on how much of this pollution is allowed, scientists argue there is no safe level, as even the tiniest particles in very small quantities are believed to impact the brains of unborn children.

But Trump’s EPA doesn’t see it that way, arguing these co-benefits are a stretch for what can be considered cost savings — and that regulating mercury from power plants is therefore not “appropriate and necessary.”

It’s a “biased and misleading estimate of costs and benefits,” Michael Livermore, associate professor of law at University of Virginia, said during a House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on Tuesday regarding the proposed changes to MATS.

“The purpose of cost-benefit analysis is to understand consequences of agency decisions,” Livermore told lawmakers. “By excluding a large category… [you’re] turning a blind eye to an enormous category of consequences,” he said of the number of lives at risk from pollution.

Just hours later, the EPA released its memo to expand its cost-benefit revisions.

Meanwhile, regarding the rollback of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, the New York Times reported Monday that “the EPA plans to get thousands of pollution deaths off the books by changing its math.”

An EPA impact analysis released last August found that repealing the Clean Power Plan and replacing it with a new rule – the Affordable Clean Energy plan – would lead to an additional 1,400 premature deaths per year.

The agency was ridiculed at the time for this admission, and now appears to be trying to reverse course. By adopting a different analytical method, according to the Times, the EPA will be able to reduce this number in order to defend its rollback of the Clean Power Plan.

Many experts, however, warn that there is no scientific basis to the EPA’s reported approach of assuming there are little to no health benefits from reducing pollution as much as possible. The methodology is expected to be made public in June as part of its Affordable Clean Energy rule roll-out.

“The EPA’s current agenda is to mislead and misrepresent the harms of the current Trump rollback agenda,” John Walke, clean air director and senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told ThinkProgress.

“But,” he added, “there’s also a future dimension – to handcuff the EPA and prevent them from protecting Americans and the environment.”

Targeting the science-based economics supporting air pollution regulations “would have very, very broad impacts,” Richard Revesz, director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University, told ThinkProgress.

Revesz says the EPA is undercutting the science in three ways, under what he calls the “dirty trinity” — methods that are “extraordinarily flawed and inconsistent with what administrations [both Democrat and Republican]… have done for decades.”

The first method is by calling into question the co-benefits. “I see what the agency proposed in MATS as potentially the first step to a systematic attack on use of co-benefits,” he said, pointing to the EPA’s memo released this week calling on the four offices to reevaluate their cost-benefit analysis.

The next method is by calling into question the benefit of reducing particle pollution to below the national ambient air quality standards on PM 2.5. According to Revesz, the EPA’s logic espoused by the head of air quality, Bill Wehrum, is essentially to say there’s no extra benefit of reducing levels of PM 2.5 below what’s required under the national standards. This “flies in the face” of what previous administrations have done and what science has established, Revesz said.

Finally, he said the administration is trying to call into question previous studies on the harmful health impacts of particle pollution.

The impact of such a “comprehensive attack,” said NRDC’s Walke, is that “the outcome of the agency’s tortured analysis would indicate that greater protections are not justified.”

The proposed changes aren’t just opposed by scientists, environmentalists, and legal experts. They’re also, in the context of MATS, opposed by the utility industry, which has already spent billions of dollars to upgrade its facilities to be in line with the pollution rules. If MATS were to be halted, they would risk not recuperating the costs put into these upgrades.

So why do something so widely opposed? Janet McCabe, former acting EPA air chief, was posed this very question on Tuesday. “I don’t know, but I can think of two reasons why they would do this,” she told lawmakers during the MATS hearing. One of these is to “inaugurate this new way of looking at benefits, and devaluing the full range of benefits.”

The other, she said, is that “this administration has made very clear they will do everything they can to help the coal industry, and this rule is top of that list.”

While it’s hard to know exactly what is going through the minds of EPA officials when introducing these changes, the broader theme across their actions points to an industry-friendly agenda.

Given the widespread opposition to these proposed changes, Pew said, “it appears [EPA Administrator] Wheeler and Wehrum are acting in the interests of a very narrow group of companies, such as Murray Energy, Wheeler’s former client, that want the MATS rule to be withdrawn.”

In 2016, coal giant Murray Energy filed a lawsuit asking a federal appeals court to evaluate the EPA’s finding that it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate power plants under section 112 of the Clean Air Act. The lawsuit was seen as a way to challenge the EPA’s longstanding practice of considering co-benefits in its cost analysis for regulatory decisions.

As for the new math on the Clean Power Plan’s repeal, that too is tied to a former client of an EPA official.

In 2015, the Utility Air Regulatory Group — which is known for fighting clean air policies and lobbying against the Clean Power Plan — was represented by Wehrum, then a corporate lawyer at Hunton & Williams. The firm filed comments to the EPA on behalf of UARG, arguing that recognizing the benefits of saving lives and reducing PM 2.5 pollution below required levels “fail a common sense test.”

According to the Times this week, Wehrum echoed this logic, arguing that the premise that you can save billions by reducing pollution in areas that already meet the national standard “doesn’t make any sense.”

While the administration is taking the initiative to repeal the Clean Power Plan, it claims it is not actually going to roll back MATS itself.

Some critics remain skeptical, however, and argue that by undoing the science that supports MATS, the EPA is opening the door for industry to challenge the rule all together — why have a rule if the agency’s own math says there aren’t many benefits?

Asked whether the EPA understands it is leaving this standard legally vulnerable, McCabe said she thinks it does. “If people think the EPA is not going to be asked to move forward to vacate the rule… they are mistaken,” she said. “The request will come immediately.”

It’s a “deeply cynical strategy,” Walke told ThinkProgress of the EPA’s attempt to undo the science while at the same time claiming it wants to keep MATS in place.

Doing this could “encourage litigation” by Murray Energy and others to undo the MATS rule, Pew said. “If that litigation were successful, there would be a race to the bottom for power companies to turn off or turn down their pollution controls.”

Coal company Peabody Energy has also indicated that the end result of the agency’s reevaluation to its cost calculations could be the entire undoing of the sweeping toxic pollution rule.

The chances of this type of lawsuit being successful, however, are hard to predict. But many expect it would be a long-fought battle — and that those fighting to keep the pollution controls in place would be able to point to the EPA’s questionable cost calculations and the established science to argue in support of the rules.

“I don’t think, in the end, they’ll be able to survive judicial scrutiny,” said Revesz, who believes the intention is designed to open the door to undermine co-benefits across policy areas rather than spur litigation.

The probability that the courts would uphold the EPA’s “flawed economic analysis” is “very low” he explained, because these actions are “inconsistent with regulatory practice, economics, science. They make no logical sense.”