Under many environmental laws, the EPA is required to tabulate the economic pros and cons of measures imposed on companies to reduce air and water pollution. For years under President Barack Obama, conservatives complained that agency officials overestimated the health and financial benefits of reducing carbon emissions from power plants.
So on Thursday, the EPA announced it will solicit comments from companies, nonprofits and members of the public about how to do such cost-benefit analyses differently — bringing into the agency a long-running debate over how the government justifies new rules.
“Many have complained that the previous administration inflated the benefits and underestimated the costs of its regulations through questionable cost-benefit analysis,” Pruitt said in a statement Thursday. “This action is the next step toward providing clarity and real-world accuracy with respect to the impact of the Agency’s decisions on the economy and the regulated community.”
Pruitt’s EPA argues that environmental laws are inconsistent in describing how such analyses are done and is pushing for what it calls uniformity and transparency. The nation’s major anti-pollution laws, the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, along with a number of other statutes, require the EPA to conduct cost-benefit analyses when writing new rules.
Environmental groups reacted to the EPA’s announcement with dismay. Ana Unruh Cohen, managing director for government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, suggested such rulemaking could obscure the benefits of anti-pollution rules to the public.
Pruitt’s actions are “founded on a big lie: that federal rules cost more than the benefits,” Cohen said. “In fact, the opposite is true — by a country mile.”
Michael Greenstone, an economics professor at the University of Chicago who served on Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, said the EPA’s notice for the proposal was itself fairly “vapid,” but the news release that accompanied it critically singled out examples of analyses from the Obama administration, suggesting the EPA is heading in a particular direction.
For instance, the agency faulted the way the Obama administration took into account co-benefits, those that come from “reduced emissions of a pollutant that is not the actual target pollutant of a regulation.” The proposal cited the Clean Power Plan, which targeted carbon dioxide emissions but justified the regulation based on the ample benefits from reducing the health impacts of particulate air pollution, which decreases along with CO2 when fossil fuels are burned at a lower rate.
“The way I like to think about it is, if I press a button and something good happens, why would I want to not count half of the good that is produced by pressing that button?” Greenstone said. “There’s no explanation given.”
Greenstone added that Pruitt seems to already have in mind the answer to the question on which the agency is seeking comment. “This appears to be policy-based evidence making. Where you set the policy, and then you go backwards and manufacture the evidence,” he said.
Another common complaint among conservatives, according to Diane Katz, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, is that the EPA compared the domestic costs of reducing carbon emissions against the global benefits of mitigating climate change.
“We’ve seen them use a number of tricks that we find troubling,” Katz said of Obama’s EPA.
Lisa Heinzerling, a law professor at Georgetown University who served in the agency under Obama, noted the proposal applies only to how the EPA does things. Mostly, the agency has not been regulating, she said, but moving to deregulate.
Under Trump, the EPA has sought to change the way its researchers review science. Now with this announcement, the agency is taking aim at the way it does economics.
In April, Pruitt moved to limit which studies the EPA can use in writing regulations to only those for which the underlying data is made public, excluding some landmark research that involves confidential personal or medical histories or proprietary information.
“The striking thing about this and the science proposal is, those are the two really major regulatory initiatives of this administration, and they’re both directed at the agency,” Heinzerling said.
“The only thing they’re regulating is themselves,” she said. “And the reason they’re doing that I think is that in the future, the agency will have to go through rulemaking to undo whatever they do here.”
The announcement earned quick praise from Republicans in Congress, just as some of them seem to be expressing doubts about the number of scandals piling up about Pruitt's management and spending decisions. The news came at a good time for the administration -- during a week in which new revelations surfaced about enlisting EPA staff to help him pick up his dry cleaning and try to secure for his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise.
“During the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency exaggerated the benefits of Washington regulations and misjudged how costly they are to the economy,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement Thursday. “Now the Trump administration is taking important steps to make sure the agency can no longer abuse the cost-benefit analysis process.”
|You are reading The Energy 202, our must-read tipsheet on energy and the environment.|
|Not a regular subscriber?|
— Today in EPA Mad Libs: If you picked "moisturizer" and "dry cleaning," you are correct. Pruitt asked his security detail to run errands for him that have included picking up his dry cleaning and driving him to multiple Ritz-Carlton hotel locations in search of his favorite moisturizer, The Post reports. “While EPA security agents are required to protect Pruitt at all times — both while he is working and during his off hours — [two individuals familiar with those trips] said the administrator had asked members of the detail to perform tasks that go beyond their primary function,” Josh Dawsey, Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis write. “In one instance, they said, he directed agents to drive him to multiple locations in search of a particular lotion on offer at Ritz-Carlton hotels. One other occasions, they added, he asked agents to pick up his dry cleaning without him.”
Multiple EPA staffers also told the Daily Beast that Pruitt sent them out to retrieve his favorite snacks, including sweets, cookies, and Greek yogurt. “I can’t tell you how many times I was sent out to get protein bars on the orders of [Pruitt],” one person told the publication. “Pruitt has been known to send staffers on these errands at least twice a week, with some sources describing his demands as 'constant.'"
Asked about the specific errands Pruitt’s security team ran for the administrator, an EPA spokeswoman told The Post: “Administrator Pruitt follows the same security protocol whether he’s in his personal or official capacity.”
— There's a second dry-cleaning story out of the EPA: In a major win for the chemical industry, the Trump administration will narrow the way it determines health and safety risks associated with the most dangerous toxic chemicals on the market, such as dry-cleaning solvents and paint strippers, the New York Times reports. “Under a law passed by Congress during the final year of the Obama administration, the E.P.A. was required for the first time to evaluate hundreds of potentially toxic chemicals and determine if they should face new restrictions, or even be removed from the market,” per the report. “Instead, the agency will focus on possible harm caused by direct contact with a chemical in the workplace or elsewhere. The approach means that the improper disposal of chemicals — leading to the contamination of drinking water, for instance — will often not be a factor in deciding whether to restrict or ban them.”
— About that Chick-fil-A job: While Pruitt tried to help his wife become a Chick-fil-A franchise owner, such a job never came to fruition. It turns out "it’s really, really hard to open a Chick-fil-A franchise, even without the pull of a government agency,” The Post’s Rachel Siegel explains. Every year, 40,000 people send the company inquiries about becoming a restaurant operator, but about 100 to 115 make it through the process.
— "It's not good:" Several GOP senators have voiced concerns about the seemingly constant questions about Pruitt, even as they praise his policy agenda. Here are some of the latest remarks from GOP senators, as reported by The Post’s Sean Sullivan and Seung Min Kim:
- Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the second-ranking Republican senator: “Well it’s not helpful to be sure, but the administrator serves at the pleasure of the president and the Congress really doesn’t have a role once confirmation occurs.”
- Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.): “We like the work he’s doing as the administrator, but naturally, all of the different issues that continue to pop up with regard to personal activities and so forth begin to wear a person down in the job they are doing.” Asked whether Pruitt should step down, Rounds said: “At this stage of the game, that’s up to the president.”
- Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the third-ranking Republican, said his patience with Pruitt is “wearing thin:” “It is ultimately the president’s call but I don’t think he would have many people around here who would object to any decision he might make about the administrator’s future.”
- Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa): “My patience level is pretty much fed up… there are lot of folks really questioning Administrator Pruitt’s ability to do his job and not be part of the swamp.”
- Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.): “I think what keeps him around is that the policies he’s implementing, most people like.”
- Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.): “It’s not good… None of the revelations have been good.”
But, all of the Republican senators The Post talked to stopped short of calling for Pruitt's resignation.
Meanwhile, Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, reiterated his call for Pruitt to leave office. "Mr. Pruitt is an embarrassment," he said in a statement Thursday. "It is a stain on our democracy that he still holds this once esteemed position."
— More calls for more investigations: Carper, along with fellow Democratic Sens. Tom Udall (N.M.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), called on the EPA’s inspector general to probe Pruitt's use of his government position to try to secure for his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise. "Federal ethics laws prohibit public officials from using their position of authority for private gain,” the senators wrote, noting other investigations into Pruitt’s actions are already underway. "We would like you to either supplement that investigation or open a new one."
Likewise, the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit that strives for strong enforcement of campaign finance laws, plans to today ask for the EPA inspector general to open an investigation into the Chick-fil-A situation. "Pruitt has violated the executive branch’s rules against misuse of position and its ethical principles," the center's Brendan Fischer wrote to EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins Jr. "Even if you should find that his conduct does not technically violate the rules, he has fallen short of the ethical mandate to avoid even the appearance of a violation of these rules and principles."
— How it's playing on Twitter:
From CBS News reporter Jacqueline Alemany:
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) points out that The Onion called this one:
Delivery service Postmates weighed in, too:
— Back to EPA policy: More than 100 lawmakers, including four Republicans, sent a letter to Pruitt urging him to withdraw a new science policy that would allow the agency to only consider science that makes its data public.
“Contrary to its name, the proposed rule would implement an opaque process allowing EPA to selectively suppress scientific evidence without accountability and in the process undermine bedrock environmental laws,” the 103 lawmakers led by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) wrote in a letter sent Thursday. “It appears to be targeted at excluding important public health studies while privileging industry-sponsored research. It also fails to adequately consider the costs of implementation and the potential privacy implications.” Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo (Fla.), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) and And Ryan Costello (Pa.) joined their Democratic colleagues in signing the letter.
— EPA spokesman calls journalist an “anti-Trump reporter:” Last weekend, Associated Press investigative reporter Michael Biesecker reached out to EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox on a story about a trip Pruitt took to Kiawah Island, S.C. in November 2017. Here’s part of Wilcox’s response, per an email obtained by The Post’s Erik Wemple. “If you read the email, I said you are an anti-Trump reporter, not the questions. Folks know you are a dishonest reporter and it could be why the Associated Press moves you from beat to beat.”
Sound familiar? This week, the same EPA spokesman called an Atlantic writer "a piece of trash."
— “I certainly feel like this is punitive:” After Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Daniel Wenk announced on Friday he would offer to retire rather than be reassigned, the Trump administration instead offered an ultimatum: Leave his post by August or retire now. The Post’s Darryl Fears reports Wenk felt abused by the administration’s response. “I certainly feel like this is punitive," he said. “To not even have a phone call, the courtesy of having someone sit with me and say this is why we feel it’s important to have you [in Washington], these are the things we need to you to do.”
— Atmospheric carbon hits all time monthly high: The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere last month exceeded 411 parts per million, the highest monthly average ever recorded, according to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Scripps researchers say the average May reading peaked at 411.31 ppm while NOAA’s reading was 411.25 ppm. Analysis of data from NOAA also suggests the growth rate of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is speeding up.
— Can capturing carbon be cheap? New research suggests the cost of capturing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is dropping. Carbon Engineering, a Canadian-based clean energy company, detailed a design of an industrial plant that could suck carbon dioxide from the air at “between $94 and $232 a tonne,” Reuters reports, “well below past estimates of about $600 a tonne by the American Physical Society.”
More: "Their research seems almost to smuggle technologies out of the realm of science fiction and into the real," the Atlantic writes of the research. "It suggests that people will soon be able to produce gasoline and jet fuel from little more than limestone, hydrogen, and air. It hints at the eventual construction of a vast, industrial-scale network of carbon scrubbers, capable of removing greenhouse gases directly from the atmosphere.” The company is seeking funding to build an industrial-scale version of the plant, hoping to complete one by 2021.
— Wolf population plan: The National Park Service announced Thursday a formal commitment to rebuilding the gray wolf population in Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Officials announced a plan to relocate 20 to 30 of the predators from the mainland to the Lake Superior archipelago over the next several years, per the Associated Press, a plan that will start as soon as this fall.
— Another animal attack in Yellowstone: A bison gored a woman on Wednesday in the third animal attack in the Yellowstone National Park this week. Last Sunday and on Tuesday, two women were attacked by a female elk with a calf, per the Associated Press, though it is unclear if both attacks were by the same elk.
— Solar plans shelved: U.S. renewable energy companies froze or canceled more than $2.5 billion in investments in large solar installation projects as a result of President Trump’s tariff on panels, Reuters reports. The canceled investments also affected thousands of jobs. “The 30 percent tariff is scheduled to last four years, decreasing by 5 percent per year during that time. Solar developers say the levy will initially raise the cost of major installations by 10 percent,” according to Reuters. “For some developers, the tariff has meant abandoning nascent markets in the American heartland that last year posted the strongest growth in installations. That growth was concentrated in states where voters supported Trump in the 2016 presidential election.”
— Another brand tries to go green: Ikea, the world’s biggest furniture retailer, says it will use only renewable and recycled materials by 2030. The brand’s owner said currently 60 percent of the company’s range is based on renewable materials, and 10 percent contain recycled materials, Reuters reports. The new pledge will aim to reduce the brand’s climate impact of its products by more than two thirds. “The world’s 250 biggest listed companies account for a third of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, but few have concrete goals to limit rising temperatures,” according to Reuters, which cited an October Thomson Reuters Financial & Risk white paper.
And here’s a good longread for your weekend:
— How the Ice Age shaped New York City: Before New York was New York, the region was covered by an ice sheet thousands of feet thick, the New York Times reports: “The ice over Manhattan would have buried even the tallest skyscraper and was so heavy that it depressed the underlying bedrock. As it melted, giant boulders embedded deep within its flanks landed throughout what became the city. Many are still visible in Central Park, unlikely obelisks scored by time. But the island was the last hurrah, and the mammoth sheet of ice ended immediately to the south, in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. The terminal moraine, the mounds of rubble left behind, form much of their high ground…. Eventually, the neglected parcels became strings of parks, cemeteries, golf courses and, in time, some of the region’s most attractive neighborhoods, often heavily landscaped and densely wooded.”
— A picture perfect tornado: The Post’s Jason Samenow details a tornado that formed in Wyoming about seven to nine miles north of Laramie on Wednesday: “Set against open fields, farms, and rolling hills, the stovepipe shaped funnel was awe-inspiring to witness.”