EPA’s War on Science

Posted on May 6, 2020 by Robert B. McKinstry, Jr.

Since its creation under President Nixon five decades ago, EPA has, for the most part, been an independent agency utilizing the best science available, even where the science led it to policy results contrary to the predilections of the party in power – that is until the Trump Administration.  Two recent actions by the Trump EPA, one final and the other proposed, exemplify the sad and stark departure by the Agency from this prior practice.

An example of the agency’s prior practice is the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued following the Bush Administration’s defeat in Massachusetts v. EPA.  In that case, the agency staff drafted a lengthy and well-reasoned analysis indicating how greenhouse gases might be regulated under the Clean Air Act governed by the law and science.  The Bush Administration published that analysis, prefacing it with a number of letters by appointed officials presenting alternative views consistent with the Administration position rejected by the Supreme Court - - but the Agency’s well-reasoned analysis constituting the bulk of the notice was nevertheless published.

As noted, two recent actions by the Trump EPA represent a departure from this science-driven regulatory approach; they also share the distinction of being roundly condemned by EPA’s Science Advisory Board and the relevant scientific community.  Both have the transparent objective of preventing the adoption of regulations whose health benefits clearly outweigh their costs.  The two actions are: (1) the final rule reversing the necessary and appropriate finding underlying the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule (“MATS”), National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants: Coal- and Oil-Fired Electric Utility Steam Generating Units—Reconsideration of Supplemental Finding and Residual Risk and Technology Review, Docket No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2018-0794 (“Revised Necessary and Appropriate Finding”); and (2) the proposal cynically entitled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, 83 Fed. Reg. 18768 (Apr. 30, 2018); Supplemental Notice, 85 Fed. Reg. 15396 (Apr. 17, 2020), Supplemental Notice, 85 Fed. Reg.21340 (Apr. 17, 2020) (extending comment period to May 18, 2020), proposing 40 C.F.R. pt. 30 (“Transparency Proposal”). 

Over the unanimous objection of the regulated industry and environmental groups, the Revised Necessary and Appropriate Finding reversed the Obama EPA’s finding that it was necessary and appropriate to regulate hazardous air pollutant emissions from the utility industry under section 112 of the Clean Air Act.  The finding that was reversed was made by the Obama EMA on remand from the Supreme Court’s decision in Michigan v. EPA, holding that EPA needed to consider cost in making a necessary and appropriate finding.  On remand, the Obama Administration EPA considered cost in several ways and renewed its finding that it was necessary and appropriate to regulate hazardous air emissions from the utility industry. 

After the change of administrations, the Trump EPA decided to revisit the necessary and appropriate finding and, in its Revised Necessary and Appropriate Finding, found that it was not necessary and appropriate to regulated hazardous air pollutant emissions from the utility industry (this was the fourth flip over four administrations on this issue).  The Revised Necessary and Appropriate Finding ostensibly left the substantive requirements of the MATS rule in place.  Indeed, the utility industry had already complied with those substantive requirements by either closing plants or installing control equipment. However, under the Clean Air Act, a necessary and appropriate finding is a prerequisite to regulating hazardous air pollutants from the utility industry.  EPA’s reversal of the finding therefore has the potential to increase its chance of success in the on-going challenges to the MATS rule.  Reversal of the rule could undermine the ability of regulated utilities to recover sunk capital costs.

In issuing the Revised Finding, EPA decided not to consider “co-benefits.” The vast majority of the monetized benefits arising from regulating air toxics from the utility industry arise from the fact that most of the toxic acid gases and fine particulates are a mixture of listed hazardous air pollutants and conventional pollutants.  It is, therefore, impossible in epidemiological surveys in most cases to segregate the impacts of the components that are listed hazardous pollutants from the impacts of the components that are conventional pollutants.  Moreover, the same pollution control equipment that removes the hazardous air pollutants will also remove the conventional air pollutants.  Thus, for example, hazardous hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid and hydrocyanic acid all form acid aerosols having the same impact on the lungs as the nitric, nitrous, sulfuric and sulfurous acid aerosols formed from “conventional” NOx and SOx air pollutants; and the same treatment technologies will remove hazardous and “conventional” acid gases.  For that reason, the direct health benefits of controlling these pollutants are labeled as co-benefits, and, according to economists, can also be considered negative costs. 

In the Revised Finding, EPA, contrary to the recommendations of the Science Advisory Board, would exclude these benefits/negative costs, as well as non-monetized benefits, from its consideration.  Instead, EPA would consider only costs to benefits relating to control of a hazardous air pollutant whose impacts can be segregated from other pollutants that are not listed as hazardous and can be monetized.   

Because EPA did not reverse the requirements of the MATS rule, the only apparent reason for proceeding with the revised finding appears to be an intent to advance a rule for the consideration of costs that will make it more difficult to regulate pollutants in the future.  Most pollutants have a variety of impacts, are emitted into the atmosphere as a mixture of pollutants, mix with other pollutants in the environment, and have impacts on receptors that cannot be segregated.  For example, most of us have observed the blue skies and clear air resulting from the reduction in automobile, truck, and air traffic as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.  Under the rationale underlying the Revised Necessary and Appropriate Finding, proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from these sources could not consider the many health, environmental and welfare benefits arising from reductions in NOx and fine particulates.  While perhaps that is the underlying intent, the rationale could also be extended to water pollution, hazardous and solid waste, and other regulations in the future.

The Transparency Proposal might seem to be a proposal that would promote sound science and good government procedure; it provides:

…when EPA develops regulations, including regulations for which the public is likely to bear the cost of compliance, with regard to those scientific studies that are pivotal to the action being taken, EPA should ensure that the data underlying those are publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation.

83 Fed. Reg. 18768.  In fact, the proposed regulation is an all too transparent attempt to preclude reliance on results that are crucial for the promulgation of regulations to protect health and the environment, even where those results have met the rigorous requirements of scientific peer review.

Most notably the proposal applies specifically to “dose response data and models” supporting a regulation, requiring that they be “publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation. . . in a fashion that is consistent with law, protects privacy, confidentiality, confidential business information, and is sensitive to national and homeland security.  40 C.F.R. § 30.5, proposed 83 Fed. Reg; 18773.  In fact, this qualification makes most data and studies critical to support regulations out of reach for agency reliance.  The underlying data in human health studies is invariably private information that, by the words of the proposal, would be unavailable, for example, many dose response animal studies are business confidential.  Additionally, most models upon which EPA relies are proprietary and are available only for a significant price.  The proposal would also seemingly preclude reliance upon metadata and review articles appearing in peer reviewed publications, since the proposal would require that the underlying data be available. 

In recognition of these fatal flaws, the proposal has been criticized by EPA’s Science Advisory Board and major scientific organizations.  Moreover, there has not been a showing of any need for the proposed regulation.  The only reasonable conclusion is that this proposed regulation, like the Revised Necessary and Appropriate Finding, is an effort to promote the Trump Administration’s anti-regulatory agenda contrary to the dictates of sound science, in short, a war against science.  There is still an opportunity to comment.  The comment period has been extended to May 18, 2020.

Balancing Environmental Protection and Public Health in the time of COVID-19 (and after)

Posted on March 27, 2020 by Seth Jaffe

Greenwire reported today that two medical sterilization facilities in Georgia that had been shut down or had production limited due to concerns about exposures to ethylene oxide  would be allowed to increase operations in response to the need for sterilized medical equipment to address the COVID-19 pandemic.  The result is not surprising and, one assumes, appropriate in the circumstances.

It does highlight, though, a major flaw in our environmental and public health regulatory systems – we have no overarching regulation that provides a context in which to compare costs and benefits across regulatory programs.  Notwithstanding the concerns of my green friends, in an ideal world, we would be able to assess the costs and benefits of different regulatory strategies, compare them, and implement the global decisions necessary to balance different programs and yield the greatest overall protection of public health. 

Balancing exposure to a compound EPA has concluded is a potent carcinogen against the need to provide equipment necessary to respond to a global pandemic is particularly stark, but the issue arises daily in numerous contexts.  I’ll give just one other example from a much more mundane situation.  Early in my career, I went to a public meeting concerning the remedy proposed for a Superfund site in Somersworth, NH.  Somersworth’s population at the time was less than 12,000 people, and its share of the cleanup costs was projected to be more than $10 million.  Numerous residents commented that more lives would be saved by investing in police or traffic lights than the cleanup of a site that might have posed a 1/100,000 risk that someone would get cancer.

The point here isn’t that this anecdotal concern was legitimate – or not – but that we don’t have a framework that allows us to make these comparisons and we don’t have a regulatory system that would allow us to prioritize the greater public health benefit, even if we knew what that was.

My dream is still one overarching public health protection environmental law.

Court Rejects BLM’s Efforts to Unbalance the Scales of Justice

Posted on November 6, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last month, Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte granted summary judgment to plaintiffs and vacated the Bureau of Land Management’s notice that it was postponing certain compliance dates contained in the Obama BLM rule governing methane emissions on federal lands.  If you’re a DOJ lawyer, it’s pretty clear your case is a dog when the Court enters summary judgment against you before you’ve even answered the complaint.

The case is pretty simple and the outcome should not be a surprise.  BLM based its postponement of the compliance deadlines on § 705 of the APA, which authorizes agencies to “postpone the effective date” of regulations “when justice so requires.”  However, every court that has looked at the issue has concluded that the plain words of the APA apply only to the “effective date” of a regulation and not to any “compliance date” contained within the regulation.

It seems clearly right to me.  For Chevron geeks out there, I’ll note that the Court stated that, because the APA is a procedural statute as to which BLM has no particular expertise, its interpretation of the APA is not entitled to Chevron deference – a conclusion which also seems right to me.

What particularly caught my eye about the decision was the Court’s discussion of the phrase, “when justice so requires.”  In a belt and suspenders bit of analysis, the Court also made findings that justice did not require postponement.  BLM’s argument was that justice required the postponement because otherwise the regulated community would have to incur compliance costs.  However, as the Court noted, “the Bureau entirely failed to consider the benefits of the Rule, such as decreased resource waste, air pollution, and enhanced public revenues.”  Indeed:  

If the words “justice so requires” are to mean anything, they must satisfy the fundamental understanding of justice: that it requires an impartial look at the balance struck between the two sides of the scale, as the iconic statue of the blindfolded goddess of justice holding the scales aloft depicts. Merely to look at only one side of the scales, whether solely the costs or solely the benefits, flunks this basic requirement. As the Supreme Court squarely held, an agency cannot ignore “an important aspect of the problem.” Without considering both the costs and the benefits of postponement of the compliance dates, the Bureau’s decision failed to take this “important aspect” of the problem into account and was therefore arbitrary.

I think I detect a theme here.  Some of you will remember that Foley Hoag filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists, supporting the challenge to President Trump’s “2-for-1” Executive Order.  We made pretty much the same arguments in that case that Magistrate Judge Laporte made here – minus the reference to the scales of justice.

Unless SCOTUS gets rid of all agency deference, the Trump Administration is going to get some deference as it tries to eliminate environmental regulations wherever it can find them.  However, if it continues to do so while looking solely at the costs of the regulations to the business community, while ignoring the benefits of the regulations, it’s still going to have an uphill battle on its hands.

Trump's "2 for 1" EO: Can You Say "Arbitrary and Capricious"?

Posted on June 6, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Last month, Mark Walker posted about Executive Order 13771.  Mark’s post was generally favorable, noting that a number of other countries have implemented some version of what is known as a “regulatory budget.”  This post provides something of a counterpoint to Mark’s. 

Put simply, I think that the Order is indefensible.  It’s not about regulatory reform.  It’s a transparent attempt to halt environmental regulation in its tracks, without regard to the benefit those regulations provide.

This week, on behalf of our client, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Foley Hoag filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs in the case challenging the EO.  One paragraph from the brief pretty much summarizes the argument:

It is important to note, as Executive Order 13771 acknowledges, that agencies are already required, where not prohibited by law, to ensure that the benefits of regulations exceed their costs. Thus, the only impact of the Executive Order is to prohibit agencies from promulgating regulations whose benefits exceed their costs, unless they eliminate two other regulations whose benefits also exceed their costs. This is the definition of unreasoned decisionmaking. It is also a thumb in the eye of Congress, which enacted public health and environmental statutes in order to benefit the public.

It is a bitter irony that the government is defending the EO in part on the basis that it is just another in a long line of regulatory reform EOs, even though the EO is in fact a repudiation of those prior orders, not an extension of them.  This order is not about cost-benefit analysis; it is about cost-only analysis.  By definition this approach ignores the public benefits that the underlying statutes are intended to provide.  Thus, the “savings clause” cannot save the EO, because there is nothing left to save.

OMB Seeks Public Comment on Social Cost of Carbon

Posted on December 5, 2013 by Carol Dinkins

For the first time, the Office of Management and Budget ("OMB") is soliciting public comment on the Social Cost of Carbon ("SCC").  The SCC is a series of published values that represent the monetary impacts of marginal reductions in carbon emissions reductions, which are to be used by federal agencies when conducting cost-benefit analysis for rulemaking activities. 

First published in 2010, the SCC is prepared by an interagency working group and is based upon three different integrated assessment models that project the economic impacts of climate change.  The 2010 document setting for the SCC called for periodic review and update of the SCC as the science and economic understanding of climate change improves over time. The SCC values were updated in November of 2013 and have been increased to reflect improvements in the underlying integrated assessment models, including incorporation of the projected costs of sea level rise.  Although OMB guidance directs that regulatory cost-benefit analyses should normally focus upon domestic costs and benefits, the SCC is a measure of the global benefits that are projected to result from marginal reductions in GHG emissions.  The interagency working group concluded that the use of a global measure for carbon was appropriate because greenhouse gas emissions create a global externality, and the United States cannot resolve the projected impacts of climate change acting alone.

OMB is seeking public comment on the technical support document that explains how the SCC is set and specifically requests comment on (i) the selection of the integrated assessment models, (ii) how the distribution of SCC estimates should be used in regulatory impact analyses, and (iii) the strengths and limitations of the overall approach.   The SCC is likely to be increasingly important as EPA proceeds with rulemaking activities to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from various sources.  In fact, EPA employs the SCC in the regulatory impact analysis for the currently-pending proposal for New Source Performance Standards for power plants.  The public comment period on the SCC runs through January 27, 2014.

Climate Change and Cost Benefit Analysis: Cass Sunstein Is Talking, But Is Anyone Listening?

Posted on November 16, 2012 by Seth Jaffe

Sunday’s New York Times had an op-ed piece by Cass Sunstein, recently departed head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, advocating for sensible measures to address global climate change. Sunstein’s argument is that

"Economists of diverse viewpoints concur that if the international community entered into a sensible agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the economic benefits would greatly outweigh the costs."

I don’t disagree with anything he says; I only wonder whether anyone is paying attention. On one hand, while Sunstein notes that President Obama supports cost-benefit analysis, Democrats in Congress – and many environmentalists – have long been skeptical, treating environmental questions as moral issues that should not be subject to something as crass as cost-benefit analysis.

Republicans used to support cost-benefit analysis. Indeed, Sunstein opens the op-ed with a discussion of the Reagan administration’s support of the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting chemicals. However, for the past ten years or so, Republicans have abandoned cost-benefit analysis for something much simpler – cost analysis. Today, if regulations cost too much – whatever that means – then they are “job-killers” and thus bad, even if the benefits exceed costs, sometimes by several multiples.

Maybe four years at MIT brainwashed me into blind acceptance of quantitative analysis, but this stuff doesn’t seem that hard to me. It is profoundly depressing that a significant number of environmentalists look only to the benefits of environmental regulation, while a similar percentage of conservatives now only look at its costs.

Somehow, we’ve got to get the twain to meet.