Scott Pruitt is Burying His Radical Pro-Polluter Agenda Under Oceans of Boring Legalese

How a dense, legalistic notice about rethinking cost-benefit analysis could derail environmental protection

Despite being weighed down by increasingly ridiculous corruption scandals, EPA head Scott Pruitt has never slowed down in his efforts to cripple the actual work of the agency Donald Trump handed over to him to destroy. Last week, as most of the media focused on admittedly hilarious scandals regarding Pruitt using government resources to get nice mattresses, fancy lotions and gourmet meals, Pruitt quietly moved to start redefining how the EPA handles the cost-benefit calculations the agency uses to determine what kinds of regulations it imposes on polluting industries.

"Many have complained that the previous administration inflated the benefits and underestimated the costs of its regulations through questionable cost-benefit analysis," Pruitt said in a press release. This failed to note that Pruitt himself was one of the main complainers, during his repeated efforts to sue the EPA while serving as Oklahoma's attorney general.

The agency announced an advance notice of proposed rule-making on Thursday, which is the first step towards rewriting standards the agency has used to determine the value of new regulations for years. The advance notice is written in dry legalese, the sort of thing that doesn't play as well as a story about moisturizer-hunting. But hidden inside all that dense language is the prospect of seriously gutting the EPA's ability to do the work necessary to protect public health.

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“It’s clearly a precursor to scaling back the way EPA quantifies and monetizes the benefits of its rules and safeguards," John Walke, director of federal clean air, climate, and energy programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Salon. 

"How EPA weighs and calculates the costs and benefits of any particular action has significant regulatory implications," explained Melanie Benesh, the legislative attorney for Environmental Working Group. “To the extent that you’re changing that the way the agency has to do that, and if you’re increasing the burden on the agency to justify actions they’re taking to protect the environment and public health, that’s potentially very significant.”

While the concept of "cost-benefit" can be complex in its details, the general concept is simple enough: EPA weighs the costs of a regulation to the industry versus the health and environmental protective benefits to the public. The latter is generally measured in lives saved and reductions in negative effects from pollution, including emergency-room visits, missed work days and other such costs.

As such, the calculus really should be understood more as a question of industry costs vs. public costs, and Pruitt's evident interest in moving as much cost as possible from industry to the shoulders of the taxpayers. 

"Those costs are going to occur one way or another," Walke said. "Either industry is going to get away with not cleaning up its own pollution and forcing those costs upon the public in the most  hazardous and dangerous ways possible to human health, or the costs are going to be internalized by the company.”

Currently, the EPA's definition of "benefits" includes not just the most direct benefits of a regulation, but also what are considered indirect or ancillary benefits. For instance, one recent regulation, which the advance notice directly cites, directly addressed measures to reduce mercury emissions from power plants. Since the devices that plants must install to reduce mercury emissions also reduce other forms of pollution that cause health problems and deaths, the EPA included those reductions in the benefits column as well when calculating the worth of the regulation.

As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt sued to block the mercury rule, arguing, in part, that these kinds of ancillary benefits should not count towards the benefit bottom line. He lost that challenge, as he typically did with these actions against the Obama-era EPA. Now he's trying to get his bogus legal challenge turned into an EPA regulation of its own.

Walke suspects Pruitt might have even grander plans for reducing what the EPA is allowed to consider a public health benefit, by making it difficult for EPA officials to include. what's called the "social cost of carbon" — i.e., the damage done by global warming to human health and wellbeing.

“Carbon pollution is a different sort of beast," Walke explained. "It’s not like particulate matter is causing direct lung harm when CO2 is emitted.”

Instead, EPA officials currently measure the benefits of carbon reduction through indirect methods. For instance, reducing carbon emissions by a certain amount is assumed to slow global warming, leading to fewer floods, droughts and other catastrophic weather events related to climate change. But industry apologists and conservative pundits have insisted that this sort of broad assessment of the damage of pollution is cheating and want the EPA to be stingier in what it considers a benefit, even if the so-called secondary effects of pollution and environmental degradation cause real damage to real people.

What makes this entire situation even more distressing is that many experts believe the current cost-benefit analysis of the EPA, even under Obama, was already exaggerating the economic costs of regulation.

As Vivek Wadhwa and Mark Muro argued in the Washington Postin December 2016, "Far from being a prohibitive drag on economic growth, decarbonization, or making the way that we get energy less dependent on burning fossil fuels that release carbon emissions, has gone hand-in-hand with output growth in most of the United States, according to research by the Brookings Institution."

Other expert analyses show similar results. While there are certainly industry costs to environmental regulation, they are not merely offset by public health benefits. Its even true that regulation often leads to job creation and economic innovation that helps stimulate the economy.

By putting even more emphasis on direct industry costs and minimizing the agency's ability to look at the big picture, Benesh said, Pruitt is "taking an existing problem and making it worse."

"We hear a lot about the everyday things, like there’s a new scandal, but those will go away," she added. But these kinds of "fundamental shifts" in how the EPA does its work "could take years to undo, if they’re undone at all." 

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte.