Earlier this year I wrote about Trump administration environmental deregulations, and our readers responded with their positions on which acts would have the most long-term harm. Who knew that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would be at it again, especially during the pandemic crisis? According to Nature, the EPA is pressing forward with controversial efforts to roll back environmental regulations and “fundamentally alter the way in which science is used to craft policy.”
In April, 2020, the EPA tampered with regulations on automobile emissions and fuel efficiency put in place under former president Barack Obama. It lessened rules on mercury and other pollutants emitted by power plants. It kept far back from any moves to strengthen standards to reduce fine-particle air pollution.
How can the Congress allow such detrimental environmental impacts to go unchallenged?
Environmental Deregulation Dismisses Scientific Evidence
“This is an extremely aggressive agenda,” says Betsy Southerland, who retired from the EPA in 2017 after a 30-year career in protest against the current administration’s policies. Southerland calculates that the EPA has targeted more than 80 rules for revision or elimination in just over 3 years, and it hasn’t supported any decision with underlying scientific evidence.
Fuel emissions: The Trump administration has completed a plan to scale back targets for automobile-emissions reductions from 5% per year to 1.5%. This alteration is one that the EPA readily acknowledges could result in an extra 867 million tonnes of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere by vehicles sold over the next decade.
Mercury emissions standards: The EPA released a rule targeting Obama-era mercury-emissions standards for power plants. It changed how the rules’ costs and benefits are calculated while also weakening their economic justification. No longer are health benefits benefits factored in due to particulate matter that would accompany cuts to mercury emissions.
Particulates: The EPA decision on fine-particle pollution went against the advice of its own staff and many academic scientists. It left current standards in place — in spite of literature that cited epidemiological and other evidence that would support cutting the maximum allowed average level of fine particulate matter from 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air to between 8 and 10.
Christopher Frey, an environmental engineer at North Carolina State University in Raleigh who formerly chaired the EPA’s scientific advisory committee on clean air, is dismayed. “Rather than focusing on protecting public health, EPA is on a misguided mission to protect the profits of regulated industries,” Frey says. “But it’s all based on a lot of misconceptions and assumptions rather than facts or evidence.”
EPA Changes How Studies Come to Light
Nature describes how bringing health data and other evidence to the policymaking table may change if the EPA moves forward with a pair of proposals about the ways that science is used and evaluated at the agency.
- A “transparency” rule could restrict the use of public-health studies — including much of the epidemiological research that the agency has used to set particulate-pollution standards in the past.If underlying data and models are not publicly available — which is often the case for private health-care data — the EPA could give them less weight or exclude them from consideration entirely when setting standards and conducting scientific assessments. “It’s headed in the wrong direction, and it would apply to pretty much all of EPA’s major work,” says Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
- The agency may change the way it evaluates the costs and benefits of environmental and public-health regulations. The proposed guidance could reduce the consideration of incidental and indirect benefits from proposed rules.
Taken together, the cost–benefit guidance and the transparency rules could help the Trump administration to justify removing regulations and could hamper regulatory efforts by future administrations.
Southerland says. “That’s why they can move so fast: they just say, ‘We no longer agree with the science and the facts.’” The scale and speed of the Trump administration’s assault on science-based regulations , she declares, is unprecedented.
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