Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt made his staff run personal errands like fetching Greek yogurt and protein bars. He had his full-time security detail hunt for a Ritz-Carlton lotion. He had an aide ask for a used Trump hotel mattress. He tried to score a Chick-fil-A franchise for his wife.
These stories have been dominating news coverage of the EPA boss (except on Fox News). They prompted smirks and snark, but they’re hardly the most important developments at the agency.
In the past week, even as Democrats asked the Justice Department to investigate Pruitt and federal inquiries and audits of his ethical conduct in office keep piling up, Pruitt managed to deliver two wins for industries that don’t like EPA regulations: continuing to roll back rules on toxic chemicals and change how the EPA weighs costs and benefits of regulations.
These are regulations that affect the health of millions of Americans and perhaps the future of how the EPA protects the environment. Let’s walk through them.
Pruitt wants to change which regulations are even worthwhile in the first place
On Thursday, the EPA issued a notice that it’s planning to revise how it evaluates costs and benefits in making regulations. This is a critical calculation in designing new regulations on everything from greenhouse gas emissions to toxic pesticides. If the costs exceed the benefits, then the regulation isn’t worthwhile.
Conservatives, namely the fossil fuel industry, have long argued that regulations, and specifically Obama’s environmental regulations, are too costly. And as a recent report from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) found, of all the regulations passed from 2006 to 2016, air pollution regulations had the highest costs. But as Vox’s David Roberts reported, these regulations also had the highest benefits:
In short, air quality rules secure enormous health benefits for the American public, but they also ask a great deal of industry.
To frame the same point another way: Air quality regulations serve as a downward redistribution of wealth, out of the pockets of industrialists and into the pockets of ordinary Americans, particularly the poor and vulnerable Americans (African Americans and Hispanics in particular) who tend to live closest to pollution sources. They shift costs, from the much higher health and social costs of pollution remediation to the comparatively smaller costs of pollution abatement.
In an editorial endorsing Pruitt’s move, the Wall Street Journal editorial page argued that Obama’s EPA “juked the numbers to justify costly regulation” by including “social costs and benefits” to make the case for regulating greenhouse gases.
But the point of these calculations was to ensure that the benefits of fighting climate change — like avoiding coastal sea level rise and averting asthma from pollutants often emitted alongside carbon dioxide — could be accounted for in policymaking.
This provided the foundation for Obama’s signature climate policy, the Clean Power Plan, which aimed to reduce carbon emissions from what was then the largest single source of greenhouse gases in the United States, power plants. (The transportation sector has now overtaken power generators.)
Pruitt’s new proposal aims to define benefits of environmental regulations much more narrowly. “Many have complained that the previous administration inflated the benefits and underestimated the costs of its regulations through questionable cost-benefit analysis,” said Pruitt in a statement.
In the case of carbon dioxide, that means only measuring the benefits of reducing carbon dioxide itself and not associated pollutants like particulates, sulfur oxides, and nitrogen oxides.
Under Obama, the social cost of carbon was found to be $36 per ton of emissions. Under Trump, it’s $5.
That means even if Pruitt doesn’t challenge the endangerment finding for carbon dioxide, which forces the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases, he can come up with a toothless regulation to replace the Clean Power Plan. Some of Pruitt’s allies want him to challenge the endangerment finding, but he’s indicated he’s not up for what’s going to be a messy years-long legal fight.
The new proposal could also undermine the case for regulations under other EPA tentpoles, like the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Clean Air Act. Right now, the EPA is accepting public comments on the proposal. Environmental activists certainly plan to weigh in.
The EPA is restricting how it measures harm from toxic chemicals
Alongside the changes to how it evaluates benefits of regulations, the EPA is also limiting how it establishes harm from environmental toxics. Some of these chemicals like 1,4-Dioxane, a compound found in adhesives and sealants, are likely carcinogens.
Eric Lipton at the New York Times reported this week that the chemicals industry has successfully lobbied the EPA to weaken how it devises standards on hazardous substances:
Under a law passed by Congress during the final year of the Obama administration, the E.P.A. was required for the first time to evaluate hundreds of potentially toxic chemicals and determine if they should face new restrictions, or even be removed from the market. The chemicals include many in everyday use, such as dry-cleaning solvents, paint strippers and substances used in health and beauty products like shampoos and cosmetics.
But as it moves forward reviewing the first batch of 10 chemicals, the E.P.A. has in most cases decided to exclude from its calculations any potential exposure caused by the substances’ presence in the air, the ground or water, according to more than 1,500 pages of documents released last week by the agency.
That means that the only harm that counts according to the EPA for many of these substances is direct contact with these hazardous chemicals, like if they fall on you. Indirect exposure through soil contamination or air pollution wouldn’t factor into the EPA’s decision of whether to restrict or ban a particular compound.
It’s a huge win for chemical manufacturers who have argued for much narrower risk assessments from potentially dangerous substances.
Though the EPA did make it harder for phased-out asbestos products to reenter the market earlier this month, Corbin Hiar at E&E News pointed out that the EPA’s new evaluation standard “means the agency won’t consider the dangers posed by, for example, asbestos-containing tiles, adhesives and piping in millions of homes and commercial buildings nationwide.”
But there have been some new regulations introduced to restrict hazardous chemicals as well.
The EPA under Pruitt agreed last month to phase out methylene chloride, a deadly chemical found in paint strippers, fulfilling an Obama-era push to ban the chemical.
The agency also added 13 new chemicals to its Toxics Release Inventory this week, a public database of industrial chemicals that could cause harm to human health or the environment. The database lets people know what chemicals are in their communities, what their effects are, and how they’re managed.
Trump is (still) standing by Pruitt
Pruitt is building a track record of showy deregulation efforts (some more legally sound than others), and that has made him one of the most productive members of the Trump administration. He’s also mirroring the White House playbook for handling scandals: deny, deflect, blame underlings, attack the media.
House Democrats on Friday called for a criminal investigation of Pruitt, but President Trump is standing by his man.
“Scott Pruitt is doing a great job within the walls of EPA, I mean we’re setting records,” Trump told reporters Thursday. “Outside, he is being attacked very viciously by the press. And I’m not saying that he is blameless, but we’ll see what happens.”