Trump Whiffs on Air Pollution

Aug. 23, 2018

Announcement on Tuesday of new rules from the Environmental Protection Agency to relax standards governing coal-burning power plantswas no surprise. It’s exactly what President Trump has been trumpeting since the campaign.

The Affordable Clean Energy rule, replaces the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which was an aggressive effort to speed up the closures of coal-burning plants, one of the main producers of greenhouse gases, by setting national targets for cutting carbon dioxide emissions and encouraging use of wind and solar. By contrast, the Trump administration will forgo setting national standards, leaving things once again to the states to administer.

In real terms, states, pressured by their local power plants, will keep pollution standards lower and less expensive by giving power plants that burn coal longer life.

The Trump administration said their proposal rectifies the Obama plan, which they said illegally tried to force power plants to change their fuel sources, and give states greater flexibility. Indeed, the courts had held up enforcement of the Obama administration rules.

“Today’s proposal provides the states and regulated community the certainty they need to continue environmental progress while fulfilling President Trump’s goal of energy dominance,” Andrew Wheeler, the acting EPA administrator.

The New York Times deserves credit for looking at hundreds of pages of technical analysis that accompany the and concluded that emissions in the biggest coal-producing states would grow under the plan and that the relaxed standards would have a part in between 470 and 1,400 premature deaths a year by the year 2030.

According to The Times, the EPA’s own analysis describes the increase of “emissions of certain pollutants in the atmosphere that adversely affect human health” when compared with the former rules, and the newspaper said that rather than listing health gains under the plan, “it is instead describing the effect of the Trump plan as benefits lost.” Indeed, the EPA analysis lists possible regulation approaches states might take and the health effects of each.

“In the scenario the EPA has pegged as the most likely to occur, the health effects would be significant,” said The Times. The EPA sees increased rates of microscopic airborne particulates known as PM 2.5, which are dangerous because of their link to heart and lung disease as well as their ability to trigger chronic problems like asthma and bronchitis. By contrast, the Obama version had aimed at avoiding between 1,500 and 3,600 premature deaths annually by 2030.

“The Trump administration analysis finds that own its plan would see 48,000 new cases of exacerbated asthma and at least 21,000 new missed days of school annually by 2030 because those pollutants would increase in the atmosphere rather than decrease,” reported The Times, adding that William L. Wehrum, acting administrator of the EPA. office of air and radiation, acknowledged Tuesday that there would be “collateral effects” on traditional pollutants said that the government has “abundant legal authority to deal with those other pollutants directly, and we have aggressive programs in place that directly target emissions of those pollutants.”

The numbers in analyses of the Trump and Obama plans were derived from a three-part modeling system reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences that the EPA has used for decades to calculate pollution effects. The premature mortality numbers also draw from a Harvard University study, now itself under attack because health rules prohibit the use of its raw data, that linked polluted air to premature deaths. When disregarded, the analysis would reflect a much more positive view of the Trump administration plan.

Now apart from the disagreements, I see a wider issue here. Under the Trump administration, it apparently is okay if West Virginia uses standards that are less rigid than the federal standards might be because it is good for states to do the regulating. But if California wants to increase the standards for auto emissions, also towards better air pollution and towards contributing to Climate Change, that is not okay. Indeed, the federal government is meeting the California attorney general in federal court over the issue.

Beside that, we once again have the situation in which the president is telling us that he is saving jobs and the environment all at once by backing a program that, in the analysis of his own EPA, actually will increase air pollution and result in hundreds of deaths annually. This is Trump double-speak, and needs to be challenged.

As to the effects of the plan, apparently it depends on where you live. Under the Obama Clean Power Plan in 2015, each state was given goals for emissions. But the Supreme Court blocked the action. Nevertheless, several states adjusted their air pollution targets to comply. As a result, 25 states probably will be meeting the original goals, 12 would now come close, and 10 lag the federal standards. Three states, Vermont, Alaska and Hawaii were exempted.

Shouldn’t we be able to do better?

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Terry Schwadron

Terry Schwadron

Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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