With New Manipulation of Benefit-Cost Analysis, the Trump EPA Attempts to Hide Bodies in the Fine Print

June 4, 2020 | 4:51 pm
Photo: Loco Steve/Flickr
Julie McNamara
Senior Energy Analyst

Nobody reads the fine print. Or that’s the apparent thesis of the Trump administration’s EPA, anyway, in its newly proposed spin on benefit-cost analysis.

Here, now, the agency with its mission to protect human health and the environment is attempting to shovel tens of thousands of pollution-caused deaths off the main page and into the margins to make regulatory inaction pencil out.

Truly, truly, this administration is challenging the public to accept that if a big number, a really big number, a tens-of-thousands-of-people-dying-prematurely-each-year number, is suddenly put into the fine print, it is no longer big, and no longer relevant. Truly.

Has this administration ever once considered that there’s another way to make the bodies go away? To pause their digging, to stop their lies, to step away from whatever newest outrage they’re about to perpetuate, and for once, see evidence of harm and have it be a call for good?


Not ever. And not this day.

Once again, this day, they see the harm, and they focus on new ways to make the evidence of that harm go away. And for what? All to pad the profits of a select polluting few.

The air pollution problem

Air pollution threatens the lives and livelihoods of every single person in this country. Often invisibly, often unevenly and unjustly, all too costly. From the looming threat of climate change to the crushing immediacy of increased risk of COVID-19 mortality, it is indisputable that harmful levels of air pollution still exist; that through numerous pathways, air pollution still sickens, harms, and kills.

Which means that the EPA still has work to do. Here’s the agency, in its own words, on that front:

Despite dramatic progress cleaning the air since 1970, air pollution in the United States continues to harm people’s health and the environment. Under the Clean Air Act, EPA continues to work with state, local and tribal governments, other federal agencies, and stakeholders to reduce air pollution and the damage that it causes.

The catch is what comes next: how the agency makes that identified pollution—and all its attendant harms—go away.

Specifically, continuing to achieve public health gains by continuing to reduce pollution, such that there is less harmful pollution in the air, or instead pivoting to achieving public health gains by gaming the evidence to lower the appearance of pollution’s harms, despite there being no actual change to the amount of pollution in the air.

We know which way this one goes.

Enter the Trump EPA’s proposed changes to Clean Air Act benefit-cost analysis, the administration’s most brazen attempt yet at manipulating facts to circumvent unwanted responsibilities otherwise required by the truth.

The more we learn about air pollution, the worse it gets

The Clean Air Act is the most powerful tool we have in fighting air pollution. Not only has the landmark legislation cost-effectively facilitated the achievement of five decades of significant reductions in air pollution; it has also provided a ready framework for adding, updating, and strengthening pollution protections over time to reflect advances in scientific understanding and public health.

Advances in understanding like how persistent exposure to even very low levels of some pollutants can cause lasting harm. Advances in understanding like how unevenly distributed have been the benefits of pollution reductions to date. Advances in understanding like human-caused climate change.

Advances in understanding that make unavoidably clear just how much air pollution progress still remains to be made.

Which means having mechanisms in place for reflecting those advances in understanding is incredibly valuable, a benefit to public health, the environment, and the many companies who continue to innovate to find new ways to operate and grow their businesses without burdening their neighbors with harmful pollution.

Indeed, this framework is good news for just about every stakeholder except one: the polluters who put their personal earnings above the well-being of others, embracing a profit maximization scheme that turns on continuing to shove the costs of pollution onto society at large—costs that we can name, like heart attacks, asthma, developmemental delays, death, missed work days, ER visits, climate impacts of every shape and size. Costs that we can name, but they don’t want to count.

These polluters are so indebted to the status quo that they devote mind-bending amounts of energy, labor, and capital not to innovate, not to improve, but instead to do everything they can to stall change.

And that’s what brings this latest benefit-cost data manipulation to bear: a polluter-friendly administration desperate to bury the mounting evidence of all the progress still clearly needed to be made.

The promise and limitations of benefit-cost analysis

Benefit-cost analysis is intended to help provide context for the potential impacts of an action, such as strengthening a standard, by tallying up and comparing the anticipated benefits and costs, both direct and indirect. Its relevance to Clean Air Act rulemakings varies: in some sections of the Clean Air Act, the practice can help inform decisions, though not be itself solely determinative; in other parts of the Clean Air Act, such as in setting standards for toxics, the decision must instead be primarily health based.

Benefit-cost analysis is conceptually alluring specifically because it suggests certainty in the face of complex questions, affording a clear-cut tabulation of the benefits and the costs. In practice, however, such certainty is often a veneer, with analyses quickly complicated by the challenges of anticipating impacts, as well as in the challenges of quantifying and monetizing them—especially when it comes to impacts to human health and the environment.

The ultimate irony of the current cost-benefit fight is that in part due to the above uncertainties, intransigent polluters first advanced cost-benefit analysis as a tool to stymy regulation under the Reagan administration. Now, they assert it overcorrects.

What’s changed?

Our steadily growing understanding of the towering benefits of reducing pollution further.

Suddenly, it’s not just polluter projections of regulatory burdens that are inked in the ledger—now, ever more of those benefits from pollution reductions can be tallied up, too. And the benefits are clearly outweighing the costs.

Time to tip the scales; time to make the bodies go away.

The administration’s solution to pollution is delusion

Despite its challenges and limitations, when conducted well, benefit-cost analysis can provide important and useful insights. Therefore, a large amount of guidance has been developed over the years to help achieve as rigorous and robust an outcome as possible—including leading and long-standing guidance from the government in the form of the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) Circular A-4, as well as the EPA’s own long-standing expert guidance addressing such analyses, too.

Changes by the Trump administration’s EPA fly in the face of all that.

Specifically, to justify regulatory inaction and ensure that polluters can always come out on top, the agency has been advancing a permanent tipping of scales by:

  1. Sidelining the science that illuminates the costs of pollution on public health and the environment;
  2. Slashing the value of included benefits; and
  3. Marginalizing the consideration of any additional benefits that remain.

The first of these is advancing under separate cover at the EPA with potentially devastating public health consequences, attempting to knock out of consideration the very public health studies that have revealed the magnitude of pollution’s harm on human health.

The second has been a repeated attack throughout the administration, with particular concern surrounding the agency’s mistreatment and devaluing of particulate matter and the social cost of carbon.

And the third is the primary focus here: marginalizing what counts as a benefit. Here the EPA is focused on sidelining the use of “co-benefits,” or benefits that occur as a result of a rule but were not the focused intention of the rule, such as particulate matter reductions occurring due to coal plants installing mercury pollution controls.

Co-benefits are a win-win, with multiple pollutants reduced on account of just one pollutant controlled. Or at least, they should be considered a win-win—unless you don’t want pollution reductions to look beneficial. Then, co-benefits become polluter enemy number one.

As a result, the Trump administration is attempting to take those co-benefits and kick them into the margins. And for this administration’s purposes, once those benefits are buried in the fine print, they are as good as gone.

The net result of all this whittling away?

A manipulation of facts so great such that without changing air quality at all, the clear and compelling motivation to act can simply, suddenly, on paper no longer be there. Not because the air is cleaner, but because under the Trump administration, the EPA has found a way to no longer value clean air.

What lies ahead

In 2018, the Trump administration’s EPA issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking suggesting that “inconsistencies” in application of benefit-cost analysis were disrupting EPA rulemakings.

The action was widely panned and forcefully rebuked.

Now, they are putting forward a narrower proposal focused on just the Clean Air Act.

In the time between, the Trump administration’s EPA has applied its own data manipulation tactics inconsistently, selectively touting benefits when it helps its case or axing benefits otherwise. What does stay consistent is that each time, polluter interests are elevated over those of the public.

To attempt to advance what otherwise defies logic and technical expertise, this effort must be riddled with bad-faith arguments and legally dubious claims. But even error-pocked, the potential significance of the consequences, coupled with the parallel effort to sideline scientific studies, create far too great a threat to public health to ignore.

After three and a half long years of the Trump administration’s attack after senseless attack on specific health and environmental protections, we cannot let the craven greed of a select polluting few undercut the whole of the mission of the EPA, to protect public health and the environment.

We will keep fighting back. And we will not be alone.

The people, and the fight, will not be confined to the margins.