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The Energy 202: The other scientific consensus the EPA is bucking

with Paulina Firozi


The Trump administration skepticism of climate-change science is no secret.

But there's another scientific consensus the Environmental Protection Agency just bucked on Tuesday when it announced it is unraveling the Obama administration's effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the nation's electricity sector known as the Clean Power Plan.

That would be the scientific agreement that there is no safe level of coal-fired power plant pollution that is healthy to breathe.

"There's a scientific consensus that we've been unable to find any threshold," said George D. Thurston, a professor of environmental medicine at New York University, adding that saying otherwise is "completely in conflict with scientific knowledge."

On Tuesday, EPA head Scott Pruitt submitted a proposal to repeal the CPP. By attempting to cut carbon emissions from the nation's power plants nearly a third by 2030 compared to 2005 levels, the CPP was a key component of the U.S. effort to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

For those inside the Trump administration unconvinced by the large body of scientific evidence establishing that those carbon emissions contribute to the warming of the atmosphere, such a reduction felt like a wasteful, economically detrimental effort, especially to coal miners and coal companies that President Trump promised to save. 

But Obama's EPA claimed the opposite: The CPP would be an economic boon.

Obama's argument: Obama's EPA justified the CPP by calculating, in dollar terms, the economic damage that manmade climate change has on the world's economy — a figure dubbed the "social cost of carbon." Pruitt now asserts that the previous administration greatly overestimated that cost. (The Post's Chris Mooney has a must-read piece for anyone who wants to understand the social cost of carbon, and the math the EPA used to come to its conclusions.)

The Obama administration also tallied the public-health benefits of the CPP, including the widespread health benefits of reducing a deadly class of pollutants from power plants called particulate matter.

These microscopic pieces — kicked up from soil by the wind, burst from volcanoes or forest fires or, since 20th century, spurted from smokestacks and tailpipes — are a main component of smog and are known to lead to lung, heart and other health problems. When coal is burned for generating electricity, fine particulates are emitted alongside carbon dioxide. Long-term exposure to some of the tiniest of these particles called PM2.5, so small they can enter the bloodstream, can kill.

More than a half century ago, long before the scientific underpinnings of human-caused global warming were established, Congress was certain enough of the negative health effects of particulate matter and other smog-forming pollutants that it passed the 1963 Clean Air Act. That and subsequent air-pollution legislation empowered the federal government, through the EPA when it was formed in 1970, to regulate such emissions.

So the EPA did — to great effect, significantly reducing smog in U.S. cities from the hazy days of the 1970's.

But population health experts say the public could benefit by reducing them even further. As the scientific evidence continues to mount about smog, researchers struggled to identify a "safe" level of PM2.5, according to Thurston. 

"What they're considering doing is using some math manipulations to discount the value of health effects that happen from particulate matter, and the way they want to do this apparently to say that there's some magical level below which there are no effects of air pollution," Thurston said. "That assumption is analogous to and as specious as saying passengers in automobiles are at absolutely no risk of being hurt in a car accident if they're traveling below the legal speed limit."

Trump's argument: But instead of arguing that those gains in air quality simply aren't enough to justify the jobs and revenue lost from closing coal plants, Pruitt's EPA contends that below a certain threshold, those benefits don't exist at all.

In its new “Regulatory Impact Analysis" published alongside Pruitt's notice that EPA would undertake rulemaking to undo the CPP, the Trump administration "considers two scenarios in which the risk of death 'falls to zero' at certain low concentrations of fine particulates in the air," writes Mooney. "In one of them, the agency assumes there’s no more risk below the levels currently required by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which is 12 micrograms per cubic meter."

The facts: Air-quality experts say there is just no evidence to back up that claim.

“If you’re an area that is at 11, and the Clean Power Plan will push you to 9, under that assumption it says there are no health benefits,” said Jonathan Buonocore, an environmental health researcher at Harvard, told Mooney. “There’s no evidence this is true. Time and time again … we keep finding health benefits when air quality gets better, even in areas that are in attainment with the rules.”

As recently as June, for example,  a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found significant evidence of adverse effects related to PM2.5 exposure at concentrations below 12 micrograms.

"There are lots of studies, including my own, that show that lower pollution levels reduce adverse health effects," Thurston added, "even when it's below the standard."

The EPA has previously made that claim too, according to Jennifer A. Dlouhy at Bloomberg News. "The EPA has historically said there is no safe threshold for particulate matter, a conclusion that dovetails with a series of public health studies and underlies a host of other federal regulations governing power plant pollution."

Or as Emily Aktin at The New Republic wrote of EPA officials on Tuesday: "They’ll ignore both mainstream science on air pollution’s health impacts and the global economic costs of climate change." 

The response: Replying to criticism of its plan, the EPA said via email that its "analyses are designed to increase transparency rather than imply a specific lower bound on the size of the health co-benefits."

“The facts are that the Obama administration’s estimates and analysis of costs and benefits was, in multiple areas, highly uncertain and/or controversial,” the EPA added.

Pruitt often states his desire to bring the EPA back to "agency's core mission," which he believes Obama neglected during his time in office. Part of that mission has been regulating the particulate matter pollution explicitly mentioned in the laws underpinning the agency.

The administrator has not said anything publicly to suggest he believes smog isn't bad for you. Indeed, Pruitt lamented in an interview with The Washington Examiner that Obama also left "air quality standards in 40 percent of the country in nonattainment" by not adequately enforcing smog-control standards. 

NOTE: The wildfires in California are still raging, with at least 17 people dead, 185 missing and 25,000 fleeing their homes and at least 2,000 buildings destroyed. Full coverage in our Thermometer section below.


A few other notes about the CPP repeal:

  • The Post’s Juliet Eilperin writes the move will “trigger an immediate court fight and could result in months, if not years of litigation," even if the policy reversal does little to sway the economic move toward  cheap natural gas and renewable power.
  • The EPA seems to have set itself on track to issue a new, presumably weaker rule to be in compliance with the endangerment finding on carbon dioxide. "But those adept at reading between the lines of dense federal documents say the subtext reads more like: 'Don’t hold your breath,'" writes Lisa Friedman in the New York Times, 
  • Here's another good analysis of the CPP announcement from Dan Vergano at BuzzFeed News, who annotated nine key terms and citations in the EPA's submission to the Federal Register to help you understand the repeal.
  • Here’s an interactive tool from the New York Times on how the proposed Clean Power Plan repeal will affect carbon emissions in your state.
  • And finally, an observation from former EPA communications director under Obama:

Here’s a brutal response to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's defense of the dust up over his costly flying habits, which CNN said on Tuesday totals $72,849. The Billings Gazette, the largest newspaper in Zinke’s home state of Montana, blasted him in an editorial over the weekend:

A little BS — is how Secretary of The Interior Ryan Zinke described criticism directed at him for taking private flights to Montana, Las Vegas and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

A lot of BS — what we believe about Zinke's response to the reasonable questions about his travel.…

A federal government that can't seem to find enough money for healthcare or education or roads can somehow find enough money for private jets for Zinke.

And while a couple of private flights may be entirely justifiable for a cabinet secretary, his brazen treatment of travel should raise some eyebrows. Zinke's response to the flap is also puzzling because Price had to resign because of a similar travel issue. You'd think a bit of contrition, even if forced, might help dampen the criticism.

There's more drip-drip  from Politico: "Zinke has attended at least two additional political fundraisers while traveling for official business, including a weekend ski getaway less than three weeks after he was sworn in that donors paid up to $3,000 to attend."

-- ICYMI: Zinke told Breitbart News over the weekend that there are some monuments on federal lands he will not touch — Confederate monuments.

“No monuments are going to be removed from federal land,” Zinke said. “Where do you start and where do you stop?... If you’re a native Indian, I can tell you, you’re not very happy about the history of General Sherman or perhaps President Grant.”

Zinke continued: "I think we should never hide from our history or erase our history. I think we should embrace the history and understand the faults and learn from it. But when you try to erase history, what happens is you also erase how it happened and why it happened and the ability to learn from it.”

A few updates on the recovery effort in Puerto Rico:

  1. The House unveiled a bill last night proposing $36.5 billion in hurricane and wildfire relief, as requested by the administration. (Bloomberg)
  2. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) will tour the devastation, leading a bipartisan group of lawmakers that include Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) House Appropriations Committee Chair Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), the committee’s ranking Democrat Rep. Nita M. Lowey (N.Y.) and Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón.
  3. After three weeks, only 16 percent of the island has power, according to the Puerto Rican government.
  4. The health-care situation is getting more dire by the day. Dialysis patients have seen a 25-percent reduction in their treatment, reports the New York Times, due to the lack of power. And less than half of Puerto Rico’s medical employees have shown up for work in the weeks since the storm.
  5. Solar companies are working together to help bring electricity back. The Solar Energy Industries Association is "putting together people that have product with people that have money," CNBC reports, to bring supplies like roofing, generators, and lighting to Puerto Rico in coming weeks.
  6. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority decided not to ask for help from electric utilities on the mainland following Maria, instead using a small Montana-based contractor to work on grid restoration, reports Utility Dive.
  7. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told CBS News on Tuesday that the death toll on the island has risen to 45.

From CBS News' David Begnaud: 

The other side of Puerto Rico relief that wasn't in President Trump's video. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

And finally, The Post's Jenna Johnson has a debrief on the gap between the video Trump tweeted out on the recovery effort and the reality of what is happening on the ground in Puerto Rico:

"​​​​Had the road-clearing clip continued for 15 seconds, the president’s millions of Twitter followers would have heard the fire chief praise the people of Puerto Rico for successfully clearing many roads before the federal government arrived. The sentiment seems contrary to the president’s repeated criticism of local efforts and his claim in the tweet accompanying the video ... There are many more federal workers and military members featured than Puerto Ricans in need of aid, and there is no mention of the fact that 84 percent of the island is still without power and more than one-third of residents do not have access to clean drinking water."

Here's Trump's version:

Here's the full video:


-- BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager, has hired a former Obama aide on climate change to advise clients on how to invest in sustainability. 

Brian Deese was a key negotiator for the Obama White House during the Paris climate talks. "What was clear to me was that the energy transition would happen when large pools of capital were put toward it," Deese said in an interview with The Energy 202. "When BlackRock makes a decision, it has an impact in the market and across the industry."

Even as Trump promised to withdraw from the Paris climate deal, BlackRock and some other Wall Street firms ae signaling they will invest in low-carbon energy. 

In May, BlackRock, one of the biggest shareholders in ExxonMobil, successfully pressed the oil company in a shareholder vote to report on the impact of global measures designed to keep climate change to 2 degrees Celsius, The Post's Steven Mufson reported.

-- Slumber party: On Tuesday, the Industrial Energy Consumers of America (IECA), a trade organization representing manufacturers, wrote a letter to Congress in opposition to the Energy Department's request for a sweeping set of regulations to electricity markets that would benefit coal and nuclear power plants. 

"[T]hough we remain supportive of both coal and nuclear," Paul Cicio, IECA president, wrote to Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the chairwoman and ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resouces Committee, "we are opposed to providing subsidies that would damage competitive markets."

Add IECA, which was one of the few trade groups to agree with Trump that U.S. participation in the Paris climate accord was not worthwhile, to the king-size bed of strange bedfellows that have pushed back against Secretary Rick Perry's proposal. They include lobbying groups for oil, natural gas, wind and solar energy. 

-- Not happening: The Supreme Court rejected an appeal from a former West Virginia coal executive who was convicted and served one year in jail for attempting to violate federal safety standards after the death of 29 miners.

Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy turned to the Supreme Court after a federal appeals court in Richmond rejected his appeal in January, the Washington Examiner reported. He was convicted in 2015 following the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

-- "Turn on the TV:" On Wednesday, PBS Frontline will air an investigation called the "War on the EPA," which traces Pruitt's rise from EPA antagonist to EPA administrator and includes what looks to be a worth-watching interview with coal magnate and fierce Trump supporter Bob Murray:

Drone footage from Oct. 10 shows entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, Calif., burned to the ground after wildfires devastated Northern California. (Video: Myrna Perez/The Washington Post)

-- California is on fire. The latest from The Post's Breena Kerr, Lena Donovsky, Scott Wilson and Kristine Phillips: "A series of deadly Northern California wildfires regained momentum Wednesday as winds whipped back up, pushing blazes through parched hills and vineyards and prompting additional evacuations from an arc of flames that has killed at least 17 people, destroyed more than 2,000 buildings and battered the region’s renowned wine-growing industry.

Local officials ordered a fresh round of mandatory evacuations in flame-battered Sonoma County, where at least 11 people have died and about 180 remain missing. One of the massive fires that has been ravaging the region since Sunday advanced overnight toward populated areas, prompting the additional evacuations, Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff Brandon Jones said.

The two biggest wine-country fires, known as Tubbs and Atlas, grew overnight as conditions worsened and had torched a combined 54,000 acres by Wednesday morning, according to Cal Fire."

President Trump spoke about the wildfires in Northern California before addressing the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump made his first public comments on Tuesday about the rampant wildfires, pledging that the “federal government will stand with the people of California.”

“I want to say a few words to the people of California. Great state. Especially with those in Napa. Napa has been hit so hard. And Sonoma. As they deal with the tragic loss of life and property to devastating wildfires,” he said. “I spoke with Governor Brown last night to let him know that the federal government will stand with the people of California and we will be there for you in this time of terrible tragedy and need.”

Vice President Pence visited the emergency response center in Sacramento, Calif., as wildfires raged in California's wine country on Oct. 10. (Video: The Washington Post)

The president approved a federal disaster declaration for the state, Vice President Pence announced while visiting the state’s emergency management headquarters yesterday. Pence also received a briefing from state officials, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"This declaration will allow FEMA to identify, mobilize and provide additional equipment and resources to assist with the emergency," Pence said. "This includes debris removal, emergency protective measures, search and rescue operations."

‘This is my neighborhood, in flames.’ Californians evacuate from wildfires (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Here's what else you need to know:

  • At least 17 people have been killed, and the death toll is expected to rise. At least 180 people are still missing. As of Tuesday, 2,000 homes and commercial buildings were destroyed, 25,000 people were forced to evacuated and at least 5,000 are in shelters. And at least 180 people have been injured, per the Associated Press.
  • At least four wineries in Napa have been completely or at least significantly damaged in the fires, write The Post’s Katie Zezima and Eli Rosenberg. Napa and Sonoma, two of most affected counties, account for 10 percent of the state’s wine industries, per the report, bringing in $114 billion in annual economic activity.
  • Meanwhile, the rapidly growing blaze in Southern California had scorched 7,500 acres and at least 24 homes by Tuesday and The Post’s Rosenberg writes that officials were still looking into what caused the fire, which is the largest in Orange County in about a decade. The fire was 40 percent contained by Tuesday afternoon.
  • Here’s a map detailing the active fires across Northern California.
  • And finally, USA Today's Elizabeth Weise reports that because power is out in many places in Sonoma, gasoline is hard to get:

The agriculture secretary shared a map of the blazes:

Satellite images from the NOAA's GOES16:

ABC7's Sandhya Patel shares NASA imagery showing smoke across Northern California: 

From the San Francisco Chronicle's Jill Tucker, scenes of rubble near Santa Rosa: 

Before-and-after images of one home, from CNN's Omar Jimenez: 



  • The Fissile Materials Working Group and  International Panel on Fissile Materials hold an event to launch a research report on the use of highly enriched uranium in Russia.
  • The House Agriculture Committee holds a public hearing on the agenda for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands holds a legislative hearing on various bills.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources holds a legislative hearing on the outer continental shelf bill.

Coming Up

  • Energy Secretary Rick Perry will testify before the The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy during a hearing on the Energy Department’s missions and management priorities on Thursday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans holds a legislative hearing on Thursday.
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds an event on the International Energy Agency’s Renewable Energy Market Report for 2017 on Thursday.
  • Bloomberg hosts its third annual Sustainable Business Summit starting on Thursday.
  • The Bipartisan Policy Center holds an event with former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on October 18

Drone footage shows entire neighborhoods in flames in Sonoma County:

Drone footage from Oct. 8 shows entire neighborhoods engulfed in flames in Santa Rosa. Fires have consumed more than 73,000 acres in Northern California. (Video: Forest Murnane)

This weather pattern is making California's wildfire season a bad one:

How a combination of a wet winter and a dry summer have fueled constant wildfires in California. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Watch the viral dance moves of BYU's Cosmo the Cougar: 

Brigham Young University’s spirit squad went viral after their hip-hop performance at a football game Oct. 6. The mascot was the star to steal the show. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Watch Stephen Colbert on Trump's IQ Test: 

Watch Eminem's latest Trump-inspired verse: