//  10/10/17  //  In-Depth Analysis

Today, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will officially announce the proposed rollback of the Clean Power Plan—President Obama’s signature program to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.  Though there is still a long road ahead before the rollback is finalized, one thing appears clear. If Trump and Pruitt do succeed in dismantling the Clean Power Plan, people will die.  Thousands and thousands of Americans will suffer adverse health effects.  And the costs will far outweigh  the benefits. 

Don’t take my word for it, though.  Take Scott Pruitt’s.  Remarkably, Pruitt’s proposed rollback actually concedes that the health-related costs of abandoning the Clean Power Plan are likely to be staggering.  Even more remarkably—and despite EPA’s efforts to massage the numbers—the Pruitt EPA seems to acknowledge that the real-world costs of dismantling the Plan will far outweigh its benefits. 

First, some context.  The Clean Power Plan envisions that states will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from coal-fired power plants by (1) shifting to renewable energy; (2) operating dirtier coal plants less frequently; or (3) incentivizing power plants to burn fuel more efficiently.  Any one of those strategies reduces greenhouse-gas emissions.  Importantly, though, each strategy also inevitably reduces emissions of “conventional pollutants” like nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter.  Those pollutants can kill.  When inhaled, they cause a variety of potentially fatal ailments, including asthma, heart disease, and respiratory illness.  Children and older adults are particularly vulnerable.

The real-world benefits associated with reducing “conventional pollutant” emissions are considerable.  Indeed, the Obama EPA estimated that, through conventional-pollutant reduction, the Clean Power Plan would prevent up to 3,600 deaths annually.  What is more, the Obama EPA estimated, the Plan would avert 90,000 childhood asthma attacks per year, as well as 1,700 heart attacks among adults.  Such positive outcomes radiate outwards.  When kids are healthier, it means they miss fewer school days.  When adults are healthier, it means they use fewer sick days.  And the resulting health-care and productivity savings add up.  All told, the Obama Administration estimated that the Plan would yield health and climate benefits worth $34 billion to $54 billion annually.

That brings us to today’s proposed Clean Power Plan repeal.  As with any major regulatory action, EPA was required to publish a “Regulatory Impact Analysis” estimating the costs and benefits of the proposed repeal.  Yet despite employing “a variety of different methods”, the Pruitt EPA was largely unable to make the case that the benefits of repealing the Clean Power Plan outweigh the costs.   That’s because (as discussed above) the  Clean Power Plan would have resulted in significantly reduced conventional-pollutant exposure—and, as a result, significant health and productivity gains. Accordingly, every cost-benefit “method” used by EPA that was “consistent with historical EPA practice” indicated that repealing the Clean Power Plan—and foregoing its health and productivity advances—would likely costbillions.  Indeed, according to the Pruitt EPA, the costs of repealing the Clean Power plan could outweigh the benefits by as much as $30 billion in a single year.[1]  

Put simply, the Pruitt EPA is issuing its proposed repeal order despite its own best analysis showing that repealing the Clean Power Plan is a very, very bad idea.

This is not to say that EPA didn’t try to massage the numbers to justify a repeal.  It did, in two separate ways.   First—contrary to established EPA practice and international scientific standards—EPA ran additional cost-benefit analyses under the “assumption” that there is some “safe” level of conventional-pollutant exposure at which the health risk “falls to zero.”  (There isn’t).  But even after re-running the numbers under those dubious assumptions, many of the EPA’s models still showed that the costs of repeal would likely outweigh the benefits.  

Second—unable  to shake the conclusion that a Clean Power Plan repeal would impose staggering real-world costs—EPA decided to conduct its cost-benefit analysis for an imaginary world.  That’s not a joke.  For its final alternative “method” of cost-benefit analysis, EPA decided to “exclude” all Clean Power Plan benefits associated with conventional pollutants.  After all, EPA reasoned, “had those [conventional-pollutant] reductions been achieved through . . . means” other than the Clean Power Plan, “then they would have been represented in the baseline for this proposed repeal . . . which would have affected the estimated costs and benefits.”  In other words: if we lived in a world where power plants’ conventional-pollutant emissions had somehow been neutralized, the cost-benefit analysis would be different.  True enough.  But so what?  The cost-benefit analysis would also be different if we lived in a world where power plants emit water vapor, or candy canes—or where old people and children don’t need lungs to breathe.  When calculating costs and benefits, made-up worlds don’t matter.  Indeed, the entire point of a cost-benefit analysis is to estimate a rule’s effects on the real world—not on some imagined existence. 

(For what it is worth, the fantasyland cost-benefit analysis did finally allow EPA to suggest that the benefits of repeal outweigh the costs.  Even there, however, EPA was forced to rely on an  artificially deflated measure of  the benefits associated  with combatting climate change).

Like so much in the Trump Administration, these regulatory contortions would be humorous if they weren’t so tragic.  But they are tragic.  Today, EPA chose to issue a policy that, according to its own best estimates, will hurt people in the long run.  And that outcome was sadly predictable.  After all, this impetuous president isn’t a man who makes policy decision to effectuate long-term positive change.  He’s craves immediate credit for immediate “results”: for stock-market highs; for disaster response; for the grand opening of coal mines.   He regularly receives that adulation in his repeated trips to coal country, where he regularly offers promises he can’t keep.  Keeping the Clean Power Plan in effect offered no such opportunities for adulation.  The Plan never stood a chance.

Think about it.  If the Clean Power Plan remains in place, some 3,600 lives per year might be spared; some 90,000 childhood asthma attacks prevented; some 1,700 heart attacks forestalled.  But nobody’s going to give Trump credit when Grandpa doesn’t die prematurely, and is right back in his easy chair next Christmas.  Nobody’s going to give Trump credit where a child doesn’t come down with asthma—and, as a result, doesn’tmiss multiple days of school due to asthma attacks.  And nobody’s going to give Trump credit where Mom doesn’t suffer a heart attack requiring intensive medical services.

With little adulation to be gained from keeping the Clean Power Plan in place, its fate was likely sealed regardless of what EPA’s data showed.  And so, despite EPA’s cost-benefit analysis, it will move forward with this ill-advised rollback.  Trump will boast about it.  He’ll shake hands with coal miners.  He’ll Tweet about bringing coal back. 

Meanwhile, the rollback will have subtle, yet devastating, effects on people’s lives.  The adverse effects of power-plant pollution—effects that should have been forestalled—will be reflected in empty easy chairs at Christmas, and in the empty classroom seats in schools.  It will be reflected in the hospital beds occupied by moms and grandmas, and in the hospital bills sent to their families.  It will be reflected in the wage and productivity loss from sick workers across the country. 

All of this is known to EPA, and known today.  Yet the rollback will roll on.

Follow Eli on Twitter: @EliNSavit


[1] This figure is even more striking than it seems at first glance, because the Pruitt EPA also artificially reduced the monetary value assigned to the Clean Power Plan’s climate-related benefits.

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Abbe R. Gluck

Yale Law School

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