As part of its wider attack on climate science, the Trump administration is now reportedly seeking to end yet another fundamental Obama-era regulation that kept a check on a toxic chemical emitted from coal-burning power plants: mercury.
According to two senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has sent a proposal to the White House that would weaken existing regulations on power plants' emissions of mercury and subsequently revamp how government values human health.
Though the proposed rule would not eradicate the mercury regulation entirely, it will surely set the stage for a possible full repeal of the health and environmental regulations on polluting industries, particularly coal.
According to the details of the rule, first reported by the New York Times, the weakening of the regulation— which the agency considers the most expensive clean air regulation ever put forth in terms of annual cost to industry —would be a major victory for numerous coal lobbyists, including Andrew Wheeler who is now the acting administrator of the EPA.
The proposal, if approved, will also be a major achievement for the chief executive of the nation’s largest coal companies, Robert E. Murray, who donated $300,000 to President Donald Trump’s inauguration and personally requested the rollback of the mercury rule.
A spokesman for Murray Energy applauded the expected move.
“E.P.A.’s proposal to revisit the outsized role that so-called ‘co-benefits’ play in the cost-benefit analyses used to justify costly regulations targeting pollutants such as mercury is appropriate and long overdue,” wrote the spokesman, Cody Nett, in an email.
He said the process is “nothing less than double-counting since the E.P.A. already controls pollutants such as soot and nitrogen oxide in other regulations.”
As per the current rule, the EPA must take into account any additional health benefits that arise from lowering toxic pollutants from coal plants.
However, if the proposal in question gets finalized, it would mean the current mercury regulation would, on paper, incur far greater economic cost than it would provide adequate health benefits. This way, the Trump administration would be legally justified in rescinding the rule.
It is important to mention the coal-fired power plants are the single biggest emitter of mercury, which can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system of people of all ages. Also, over time, these emissions build up in fish which are then ultimately consumed by the people.
The agency’s spokesperson, John Konkus, said the administration is just trying to make necessary amendments to the previous administration’s method in calculating the burden federal regulations place on industry.
“The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule was an egregious example of the Obama administration’s indifference toward required cost benefit analysis,” Konkus said. “EPA knows these issues are of importance to the regulated community and the public at large and is committed to a thoughtful and transparent regulatory process in addressing them.”
However, the concerned environmentalists don’t feel the same way about the administration’s motive behind the proposed action.
“This is a sweeping attack on considering the benefits of cutting hazardous pollution from coal plants,” said John Walke, a legal expert on the Clean Air Act with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This is the first legal step toward eliminating the standard entirely.”
The proposal in question also echoes a key environmental opinion of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee who is currently in the center of a maelstrom of a sexual assault allegation.
In 2014 the coal industry lost its case when it sued to roll back the mercury regulation. However, Kavanaugh voiced his discontent with the rule’s cost to industry.
“Suppose you were the EPA Administrator. You have to decide whether to go forward with a proposed air quality regulation,” Kavanaugh wrote at the time. “Before making that decision, what information would you want to know? You would certainly want to understand the benefits from the regulations. And you would surely ask how much the regulations would cost. ... That’s just common sense and sound government practice.”
It appears, if the legal battle over the proposed regulatory rollback goes before the Supreme Court and if Kavanaugh happens to be in control of things, the chances are he will side with the coal industry.
It seems the Trump administration has started to run the country by an old adage “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” as it no longer wants to track potent gases that are released in the atmosphere and have devastating long-run impacts.
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