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Trump's EPA plans to tie its own hands

ENERGY-POLICY

Emissions rise from the Duke Energy Corp. coal-fired Asheville Power Plant in Arden on Sept. 13.

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Thursday, October 11, 2018

Mercury is a noxious byproduct of burning coal. It contaminates fish and, in turn, people, leading to brain damage in infants and small children, as well as serious cardiovascular and central nervous system problems in adults. Restrictions on U.S. power plants have substantially reduced their emissions of mercury since 2015.

Apparently, the Trump administration has a problem with that.

Specifically, it objects to the way the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama justified the new rules. The EPA now proposes to change the accounting in a way that would have precluded the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards altogether, and could make it all but impossible to strengthen limits on mercury and other toxic pollutants when those standards come up for review in 2020.

The mercury rule itself isn't about to be rolled back, because power companies asked the administration not to do that. The industry has already complied — installing scrubbers and filters at some plants, closing others — and it wants to keep charging the cost to ratepayers. But if the method favored by the EPA is adopted, there is a danger it could be used for emissions rules of all kinds, giving polluters a way to weaken regulation at the expense of public health and climate protection.

Critics complain that the mercury rule's cost-benefit analysis included benefits not directly attributable to lower emissions of mercury. It factored in as well the so-called "co-benefits" of reducing fine particulate matter and other pollutants. Those additional benefits to health and longevity were assessed at upward of $33 billion a year — vastly greater than the benefits attributed to reducing mercury alone.

Granted, it's much easier to assess the costs of bronchitis, heart attacks and other maladies caused by inhaling fine particles than to measure and put a price on the brain damage that mercury poisoning causes over the course of many years. (The EPA's estimate of the costs directly attributable to mercury is based on lost earnings and added education expenses for children born to mothers who eat freshwater fish caught by recreational anglers.) Yet costs that can't be easily measured should not simply be ignored — as the EPA, in effect, intends.

Moreover, the critics' idea that co-benefits should not, as a matter of principle, be included in cost-benefit analysis is nonsensical. The costs and benefits of any regulation should encompass the widest possible range of effects. This has been standard practice since the Nixon administration, and rightly so.

It's sometimes argued that the mercury rule's effect on particulates is irrelevant, or a kind of double counting of benefits, because other EPA regulations already deal with particulate matter. This is also wrong. The mercury-rule calculations included only the benefits due to that particular rule — beyond what other regulations accomplish.

This absurd new approach to cost-benefit analysis — ignore costs that are hard to measure and exclude co-benefits — would make it difficult to control hundreds of other pollutants. Benzene and arsenic, for instance, are known carcinogens, but it isn't easy to estimate how many children might develop cancer from increased exposure. And ignoring the enormous co-benefits of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases would block essential steps to protect the climate. (The Obama administration's Clean Power Plan was justified in part by counting the co-benefit of reducing fine-particle pollution.)

Trump's proposal could be reversed by a future administration. In the meantime, though, if the policy goes ahead, it ought to land the EPA in court. Judges have often instructed federal agencies to consider all indirect costs. For the moment, litigation might be the best way to keep effective environmental regulation in place.

Bloomberg View editorial board

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