The Trump administration had a choice when its plan for replacing an Obama-era pollution rule was forecast to result in thousands of premature deaths. It could have recognized the harm and ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to side with public health over big polluters. Or it could simply change the math for what constitutes a health risk, thereby driving the mortality figures lower. That the administration leans toward the second option is not surprising, which is why Congress and the courts should ensure any change is based on sound science.
The administration made public the details of its new pollution rules in August, seeking to overturn an aggressive plan by the Obama White House to speed up the closure of coal-burning power plants, one of the main producers of greenhouse gases. The Obama-era Clean Power Plan set new targets for cutting carbon dioxide emissions, encouraging utilities to use cleaner energy sources like solar and wind under a proposal it estimated would help prevent between 1,500 and 3,600 premature deaths annually by 2030.
But the Trump administration countered that the plan was too costly and burdensome to business, and it proposed an alternative, the Affordable Clean Energy rule. It would encourage minor on-site efficiency improvements at individual plants and allow states to relax pollution rules to enable older, dirtier plants to operate longer. The Trump EPA estimated its plan would have resulted in an increase of between 470 and 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030 because of increased rates of microscopic airborne particulates. Those particulates are linked to heart and lung disease and can trigger chronic conditions such as asthma and bronchitis.
But now, the New York Times reported last month, the administration is considering a new analytical model that would significantly drive down its number of estimated deaths. The proposed methodology would assume there is little or no health benefit to making the air any cleaner than what the law requires. And the administration would likely use the new standard, should it be adopted, as a weapon to further roll back other pollution rules. Five people familiar with the plan who spoke with the Times - all current or former E.P.A. officials - said the new model would appear in the agency's final analysis of the regulation, which is expected to be made public this month.
Experts in environmental law and health criticized the change, likening it to rule-making on the fly and deriding it as an attempt to whitewash the mortality figures. This looks like a math exercise in reverse, with the administration shopping for a formula to produce a rosier result from dirtier air. Congress and the courts, which may ultimately decide this issue, need to stand firmly with decades of federal protections for clean air and public health. Responsible players in the power industry are already moving to cleaner energies. There is no need to arrest that momentum by rewarding the worst polluters.