U.S. EPA’s “secret science” plan could reduce the health benefits that come along with controlling carbon emissions, scrambling previous calculations that gave weight to saving lives and avoiding heart attacks.
The most immediate consequence of the potential policy—which would prevent the agency from using some scientific studies in its rulemaking—could fall on EPA’s efforts to rewrite the Clean Power Plan, according to proponents and critics of EPA’s proposal.
If enacted, the plan could sharply curtail the incorporation of public health studies that show the risks from breathing air pollutants as federal regulators draft rules for power plants. That would significantly reduce the calculated benefits of the Clean Power Plan, which estimates suggested would slash smog- and haze-forming pollutants as it also reduced global warming gases. EPA projected in 2016 that the rule would avoid 3,600 premature deaths and 90,000 asthma attacks, a non-climate benefit valued at between $14 billion and $34 billion.
Those benefits could drop dramatically under the plan being considered by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. And that could mean the rule suddenly becomes more expensive to implement, upending analyses that consider the costs and benefits of federal regulations.
“If you can’t count those benefits because you can’t rely on reams of academic studies showing that those pollutants are harmful to people who have to breathe them, then you essentially undercount the benefits of reducing the pollution and overcount the costs,” said Joanne Spalding, senior managing attorney at the Sierra Club.
The secret science proposal is expected to bar EPA from using studies in rulemaking where the underlying data are not publicly available. That could sideline valuable scientific research, critics contend.
Pruitt’s plan resembles legislation proposed by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Smith has tried to address what he considers a widespread conspiracy among climate scientists to manipulate climate data. To Smith, requiring the use of public data would counter efforts to advance the agency’s agenda using “secret science” (Climatewire, March 16).
Pruitt confirmed his plans, first reported by E&E News, in an interview with the Daily Caller this week.
Joseph Goffman, a former EPA official and current executive director of Harvard Law School’s Environmental Law Program, said Pruitt’s plan is “very much targeted” at specific studies that had been important in setting particulate matter standards.
“Essentially, you have a constituency that don’t like certain results, and so they are sort of back-engineering to find a way to defeat the results,” Goffman said.
Few observers expect EPA to craft new regulations. However, the agency has said it’s considering replacing the Clean Power Plan, proposed under President Obama, with a weaker version that would regulate carbon emissions from power plants at the facility level.
“This is like a double whammy because EPA is already going back on, or retracting its reliance on, the social cost of carbon,” said Spalding of the Sierra Club.
She’s referring to a wonky metric that’s used to estimate the dollar value of emitting 1 ton of carbon. The Trump administration revised how the value was calculated by considering only domestic carbon emissions rather than total global emissions. This decision effectively slashed the economic benefits of cutting carbon.
‘Pruitt isn’t even listening’
This is not the only way EPA could limit possible health benefits of the climate rule.
A report by the Congressional Research Service on the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan noted that the agency under President Trump introduced two different thresholds for determining health risks from particulate matter. The 2015 rule included no such threshold, but had acknowledged that there was less certainty about the mortality risk with lower concentrations of the pollutant.
The report concluded that the higher threshold was “mostly favorable to a proposed repeal,” while the other was “less favorable to repeal.” EPA is currently seeking comment on those accounting methods.
The agency signaled its intentions to limit the value of non-climate pollutants in its overhaul of the rule.
“The Obama administration relied heavily on reductions in other pollutants emitted by power plants, essentially hiding the true net cost of the CPP by claiming benefits from reducing pollutants that had nothing to do with the rule’s stated purpose,” said an agency press release last October.
Goffman noted that while EPA’s analysis of the Clean Power Plan would likely be affected by the “secret science” initiative, there would be a bigger effect on National Ambient Air Quality Standards or the Risk and Technology Review for toxic air pollution because these are health-based standards.
“I say that as much because the history behind what Pruitt is doing up until this point has been focused on health and risk-based standards rather than technology standards [like the Clean Power Plan],” he said.
The current controversy over fine particulate standards originated with two studies from the 1990s—the Harvard Six Cities study and the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II, according to John Bachmann, a former EPA official who worked in the agency’s air office in North Carolina.
Both studies were conducted in such a way that making the raw data available to everyone online was not possible. EPA had paid for an independent reanalysis of the underlying data of both studies and obtained results that supported the original conclusions. Following the completion of the two long-term studies on the risk of mortality from fine particulate matter, their results have been supported by subsequent research.
“It’s widely accepted, the studies have been replicated, they have been done in a lot of countries, and all of them show that particulate matter kills people on some level,” Bachmann said.
Particulate matter is of particular interest to Steve Milloy, a former EPA transition team member who is one of the individuals working behind the scenes to get Pruitt to adopt this policy. Milloy rejects mainstream climate science.
Milloy stated that fine particulate matter, also referred to as PM2.5, had been “weaponized” under the Obama administration. In his book, “Scare Pollution: Why and How to Fix the EPA,” he referred to EPA’s past research on the health impacts of the fine particulate matter as “unsupportable, if not outright false.”
He told E&E News that the policy shift toward eliminating “secret science” would have a limited impact on climate-related action.
“Where secret science does kind of intersect with climate is in the Clean Power Plan when EPA came up with all those benefits because those are all [PM]2.5 related,” Milloy said.
Other possible influences of “secret science” could be on ozone standards and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee.
“I know those guys just wanted to pretend that any level of PM2.5 kills people, and I think that argument is not going to be able to stand because it will follow the secret science rubric,” Milloy said.
Milloy described the plan as another “win” for the Trump administration.
“I’m just pleased as punch this is coming out; this is going to be my third or fourth big win at EPA, so this is very exciting. You’ve got to make hay while the sun shines, so that’s what I’m doing,” Milloy said.
He added that concerns about patient privacy when publishing public health research data were overblown. Milloy suggested that identifying patient information like names and addresses could easily be redacted.
But Bachmann said simply redacting personal information like names and addresses from epidemiological study data would not be enough to protect participants’ privacy.
“You really need to be able to do epidemiological studies and figure out some way to do it. And I don’t think they’ve figured out any way to do it yet that provides the confidentiality people need for doctor’s medical records,” he said.
Bachmann noted that he had worked under both Democratic and Republican administrations, including for “good Republicans,” and didn’t want to be political.
“Even [former EPA Administrator] Anne Gorsuch listened to me brief her on particulate matter science for two hours before she tried to make a decision to loosen the standards, but she listened to it. I guess Pruitt isn’t even listening to people right now,” Bachmann said.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.