Public Health & Recreation

Gutting Clean Air Act Protections Will Prove Costly

The costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act, according to EPA data. (Roger Warburton/ecoRI News)

In the first part of this three-story series, I described the costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act of 1963. In the second part, I explained how those costs and benefits trickled down to Rhode Island. This story looks at U.S. complacency surrounding the continued protection of our air.

Despite impressive progress on improving air quality during the past five-plus decades, air pollution continues to kill Americans. In the United States, 1 of every 25 deaths occurs prematurely because of exposure to outdoor air pollution, according to a 2017 study. Air pollution, in fact, kills more Americans than: all transportation accidents and gun shootings combined; diabetes; breast cancer and prostate cancer combined; and Parkinson’s disease.

Despite these data, the White House, through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is trying to weaken the Clean Air Act and permit more toxic air pollution.

The efforts to weaken the successful law are occurring despite a complete absence of factual evidence. In fact, hundreds of scientific studies, including an EPA study, have confirmed that the benefits of the Clean Air Act are quantifiable, accurate, and real.

The federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) supports the findings of those studies. The Regulatory Right-to-Know Act requires that the OMB submit to Congress each year an estimate of the total annual costs and benefits of all federal rules.

The OMB’s 2017 report says that of the EPA’s 26 air rules, the highest estimated benefits are for: the Clean Air Fine Particle Implementation Rule (2007), with benefits ranging from $19 billion to $167 billion annually; and the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants From Coal- and Oil-Fired Electric Utility Steam Generating Units (2011), with benefit estimates ranging from $28 billion to $77 billion.

The last item is estimated to be the costliest of the EPA rules with annualized costs of about $8.2 billion, which is far less than the estimated benefits.

The EPA is required, by law, to provide a cost/benefit calculation for all rules. Therefore, to modify the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to explain how an increase in pollution will provide cost benefits.

Because the science has definitively established that an increase in pollution doesn’t have cost benefits, the EPA is proposing to change the rules.

EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler dismissed a qualified, independent panel of air pollution scientists appointed by the Obama administration to advise the agency on health effects of fine particulate air pollution. As a result, members of the EPA’s newly staffed Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee have admitted that they don’t have enough expertise to make appropriate judgments.

Wheeler is preparing to finalize a rule that could threaten the health of Americans by weakening the scientific basis for air pollution regulations.

According to Richard E. Peltier, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Wheeler’s proposed rule would require the EPA to ignore scientists’ best estimates of how people actually respond to low concentrations of pollutants. It could also enable political appointees to set pollution rules based on opinion, rather than on broad scientific evidence.

Peltier has suggested that the EPA could even choose to assume that exposure to lower doses of pollution is good for you.

The EPA is trying to ignore the devastating impacts of pollution: the premature deaths and the medical costs associated with asthma attacks, heart attacks, and bronchitis attacks.

We have heard these claims before: EPA standards are harmful to the economy and employment. These claims are just not true, as data from the Clean Air Act’s 56-year history clearly demonstrate that a healthy environment makes for a healthy economy.

Rhode Island families don’t have to choose between a job and healthy air. They can have both.

Roger Warburton, Ph.D., is a Newport, R.I., resident.

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