When former-coal lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency testified before Senators at his confirmation hearing, he said climate change was “not the greatest crisis” facing our planet.
Wheeler has served as Acting EPA Director since Scott Pruitt was ousted in July and will likely be confirmed in February along Senate party lines: 53-47.
His most recent assault on the environment is a proposal to recalculate the costs and benefits of Mercury and Air Standards (MATS), implemented by President Obama in 2012, so that the health benefits of curbing mercury pollution is factored out of the equation.
Saving Between $37 Billion to $90 Billion in Annual Health Costs
“Under President Obama, EPA estimated in 2016 that the soot and nitrogen oxide reductions that would accompany cuts to mercury pollution would save between $37 billion to $90 billion in annual health costs and lost workdays by preventing as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks,” reports Kathiann M.Kowalski of Energy News.
By Wheeler’s calculations, these benefits would plunge to an estimated $4 million to $6 million in health benefits annually, Kowalski writes.
“Much of that difference comes from so-called ‘co-benefits’—positive health outcomes and other consequences that result in reductions in one type of contaminant—in this case, mercury– reduce other pollutants as well.”
In addition to causing heart and lung disease, as well as asthma, mercury is a potent neurotoxin that permeates the placenta, and may cause fetal brain damage.
Currently, coal-and oil-fired plants are the prime sources of mercury poisoning. Most coal power plants have already complied with the Obama-era standards.
“Some companies also decided to close coal-fired plants rather than comply with the rules. FirstEnergy did that with its Ashtabula, Lake Shore and Eastlake plants, for example,” Kowalski writes.
Supreme Court Decision Drove Obama Cost-Benefit Finding
Kowalski reports that a 2015 Supreme Court Decision, National Mining Association v. Environmental Protection Agency, ruled that “a cost-benefit justification is necessary to support the underlying mercury regulation, agreeing with the National Mining Association that the EPA should have considered the costs before finalizing the MATS rules during President Obama’s first term in 2012.
EPA complied with the Court in 2016, finding that regulating mercury emissions would save $33 billion to $90 billion annually.
The EPA in 2016 also reaffirmed the original December 2000 finding, made by President Bill Clinton and his pro-environment Vice President, Al Gore, that it’s “appropriate” to regulate coal and oil-fired plants, as their air toxic emissions—most notably mercury—pose hazards to public health and the environment.
The mercury regulation was one of Al Gore’s last environmental initiatives after he lost the Presidential election to George W. Bush, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision not to recount the Florida ballots.
Although President Obama successfully justified his mercury rule’s costs and benefits, if Wheeler changes the ratio to suit his own agenda, a court might say the rule is no longer justified, Kowalski writes.
Double-Counting the Benefits
The National Mining Association has said it welcomes the proposed recalculation.
In a statement, its president and CEO Hal Quin claimed the EPA’s 2016 cost-benefit analysis involved “suppressing the real costs while double-counting potential benefits, The Washington Post reports.
In an interview with The Post in October when he first proposed the rule, Wheeler said the EPA is “focused on producing analysis that capture the specific impact of a rule”—in this case, mercury—rather than so-called “co-benefits” that derive from installing new pollution controls on equipment.
“I just think it’s a little fuzzy math when you say, ‘reduce mercury and we have all these other benefits over here, as the shiny object,” Wheeler said, adding that “the agency could still consider other benefits but should categorize them separately,” The Post reports.
A former Pittston Coal Company executive, who voted for Donald Trump, now says “the current Administration’s environmental policy is faulty.”
Paris Accord Withdrawal and More
The Huffington Post’s Alexander C. Kaufman writes that “Wheeler’s biggest clients included Murray Energy Corporation, which proudly bills itself as the largest coal mining company in America, and who’s CEO, Robert E. Murray, vigorously fought the Obama administration’s attempts to reduce carbon emissions and strengthen environmental and public health laws.
“Shortly after Trump took office, Murray, an unabashed climate denier, presented Vice President Mike Pence with a ridiculously pro-coal ‘action plan’ that was cited for doing away with the Clean Power Plan, withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, eliminating federal tax credits for renewable energy and—yes—halving the EPA’s workforce, “Kaufman writes.
“In his spare time, Wheeler serves as the vice president of the Washington Coal Club, powerful yet little-known federation of more than 300 coal producers, lawmakers, business leaders and policy experts who have dedicated themselves to preserving the uncertain future of our dirtiest fossil fuel.”
An Urgent Crisis Escaping Wheeler’s Attention
The New York Times’s Lisa Friedman reports that “during the confirmation hearings, Wheeler said the planet is warming and that mankind plays a role, making Mr. Wheeler one of the few members of the Trump Administration to openly acknowledge the basics of established climate science.”
“But he also said he had not familiarized himself with major scientific reports, including one conducted by 13 United States agencies, that warned rising global emissions are an urgent crisis,” Friedman concludes.
The Washington Post reports that “in the last few months, everyone—from power company representatives including the Edison Electric Institute, America Public Power Association and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, to labor leaders and Members of Congress from both parties—have asked the Trump Administration to leave the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards in place.
“Rolling them back, will benefit no one except perhaps a few coal barons,” The Post concludes.