Category Archives: Clean Power Plan

E.P.A. Plans to Get Thousands of Deaths Off the Books by Changing Its Math

By Lisa Friedman, New York Times, May 20, 2019
The Hunter power plant in Castle Dale, Utah, which burns an estimated 4.5 million tons of coal a year.  Credit: Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency plans to change the way it calculates the future health risks of air pollution, a shift that would predict thousands of fewer deaths and would help justify the planned rollback of a key climate change measure, according to five people with knowledge of the agency’s plans.

The proposed change would dramatically reduce the 1,400 additional premature deaths per year that the E.P.A. had initially forecast as a result of eliminating the old climate change regulation — the Clean Power Plan, which was President Barack Obama’s signature climate change measure. It would also make it easier for the administration to defend its replacement, known as the Affordable Clean Energy rule.

It has been a constant struggle for the E.P.A. to demonstrate, as it is normally expected to do, that society will see more benefits than costs from major regulatory changes. The new modeling method, which experts said has never been peer-reviewed and is not scientifically sound, would most likely be used by the Trump administration to defend further rollbacks of air pollution rules.

It is not uncommon for a presidential administration to use accounting changes to make its regulatory decisions look better than the rules of its predecessors. But the proposed new modeling method is unusual because it relies on unfounded medical assumptions and discards more than a decade of peer-reviewed E.P.A. methods for understanding the health hazards linked to the fine particulate matter produced by burning fossil fuels.

Fine particulate matter — the tiny, deadly particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream — is linked heart attacks, strokes and respiratory disease.

The five people familiar with the plan, who are all current or former E.P.A. officials, said the new modeling method would be used in the agency’s analysis of the final version of the ACE rule, which is expected to be made public in June. William L. Wehrum, the E.P.A. air quality chief, acknowledged in an interview the new method would be included in the agency’s final analysis of the rule.

The new methodology would assume there is little or no health benefit to making the air any cleaner than what the law requires. On paper, that would translate into far fewer premature deaths from air pollution, even if it increased. The problem is, scientists say, in the real world there are no safe levels of fine particulate pollution in the air.

“Particulate matter is extremely harmful and it leads to a large number of premature deaths,” said Richard L. Revesz, an expert in environmental law at New York University. He called the expected change a “monumental departure” from the approach both Republican and Democratic E.P.A. leaders have used over the past several decades and predicted that it would lay the groundwork for weakening more environmental regulations.

“It could be an enormously significant impact,” Mr. Revesz said.

The Obama administration had sought to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Power Plan by pushing utilities to switch away from coal and instead use natural gas or renewable energy to generate electricity. The Obama plan would also have what’s known as a co-benefit: levels of fine particulate matter would fall.

The Trump administration has moved to repeal the Obama-era plan and replace it with the ACE rule, which would slightly improve the efficiency of coal plants. It would also allow older coal plants to remain in operation longer and result in an increase of particulate matter.

Particulate matter comes in various sizes. The greatest health risk comes from what is known as PM 2.5, the range of fine particles that are less than 2.5 microns in diameter. That is about one-thirtieth the width of a human hair.

The E.P.A. has set the safety threshold for PM 2.5 at a yearly average of 12 micrograms per cubic meter. While individual days vary, with some higher, an annual average at or below that level, known as the particulate matter standard, is considered safe. However, the agency still weighs health hazards that occur in the safe range when it analyzes new regulations.

Industry has long questioned that system. After all, fossil fuel advocates ask, why should the E.P.A. search for health dangers, and, ultimately, impose costs on industry, in situations where air is officially considered safe?

Mr. Wehrum, who worked as a lawyer and lobbyist for chemical manufacturers and fossil fuel businesses before moving to the E.P.A., echoed that position in the interview. He noted that, in some regulations, the benefits of reduced particulate matter have been estimated to total in the range of $40 billion.

“How in the world can you get $30 or $40 billion of benefit to public health when most of that is attributable to reductions in areas that already meet a health-based standard,” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

William L. Wehrum, the E.P.A. assistant administrator for air and radiation. Credit: Ron Sachs/CNP/MediaPunch

Mr. Wehrum confirmed that he had asked his staff to study the issue and that the final version of the ACE rule would include a variety of analyses, including one that does not take into consideration health effects below the particulate matter standard. He acknowledged that doing so would reduce the 1,400 premature deaths the agency had initially predicted as a result of the measure.

He called the attention given to that initial forecast “unfortunate” and said the agency had included the figure in its analysis to show the varied results that can be achieved based on different assumptions.

Mr. Wehrum said the analyses the agency is conducting “illuminate the issue” of particulate matter and the question of what level is acceptable for the purposes of policymaking. He said new approaches would allow for public debate to move ahead and that any new methods would be subject to peer review if they became the agency’s primary tool for measuring health risks.

“This isn’t just something I’m cooking up here in my fifth-floor office in Washington,” Mr. Wehrum said.

Roger O. McClellan, who has served on E.P.A. advisory boards and as president of the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology, an industry-financed research center, said the data for health risks below the particulate matter standard was weak and that he did not accept the argument that agencies must calculate risk “down to the first molecule of exposure.”

“These kinds of approaches — that every molecule, every ionization, carries with it an associated calculable health risk — are just misleading,” Mr. McClellan said.

To put the matter in perspective, most scientists say particulate matter standards are like speed limits. On many highways, a limit of 65 miles per hour is considered reasonable to protect public safety. But that doesn’t mean the risk of an accident disappears at 55 m.p.h., or even 25.

Jonathan M. Samet, a pulmonary disease specialist who is dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, said the most recent studies showed negative health effects well below the 12-microgram standard. “It’s not a hard stop where we can say ‘below that, air is safe.’ That would not be supported by the scientific evidence,” Dr. Samet said. “It would be very nice for public health if things worked that way, but they don’t seem to.”

Daniel S. Greenbaum, president of the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit research organization that is funded by the E.P.A. and industry groups, acknowledged there was uncertainty around the effects of fine particulate matter exposure below the standard.

He said it was reasonable of the Trump administration to study the issue, but he questioned moving ahead with a new system before those studies are in. “To move away from the way this has been done without the benefit of this full scientific peer review is unfortunate,” he said.


For more news on climate and the environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.
Lisa Friedman reports on climate and environmental policy in Washington. A former editor at Climatewire, she has covered nine international climate talks. @LFFriedman
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    Obama vetoes GOP push to kill climate rules

    Repost from The Hill

    Obama vetoes GOP push to kill climate rules

    By Timothy Cama – 12/19/15 08:35 AM EST 
    Getty Images

    President Obama has vetoed a pair of measures by congressional Republicans that would have overturned the main pillars of his landmark climate change rules for power plants.

    The decision was widely expected, and Obama and his staff had repeatedly threatened the action as a way to protect a top priority and major part of his legacy.

    The White House announced early Saturday morning, as Obama was flying to Hawaii for Christmas vacation, that he is formally not taking action on the congressional measures, which counts as a “pocket veto” under the law. “Climate change poses a profound threat to our future and future generations,” the president said in a statement about Republicans’ attempt to kill the carbon dioxide limits for existing power plants.

    “The Clean Power Plan is a tremendously important step in the fight against global climate change,” Obama wrote, adding that “because the resolution would overturn the Clean Power Plan, which is critical to protecting against climate change and ensuring the health and well-being of our nation, I cannot support it.”

    That rule from the Environmental Protection Agency mandates a 32 percent cut in the power sector’s carbon output by 2030.

    He had a similar argument in support of his regulation setting carbon limits for newly-built fossil fuel power plants, saying the legislation against it “would delay our transition to cleaner electricity generating technologies by enabling continued build-out of outdated, high-polluting infrastructure.”

    Congress passed the resolutions in November and December under the Congressional Review Act, a little-used law that gives lawmakers a streamlined way to quickly challenge regulations from the executive branch.

    Obama had made clear his intent to veto the measures early on, so the passage by both GOP-led chambers of Congress was only symbolic.

    The votes came before and during the United Nations’ major climate change conference in Paris, as an attempt to undermine Obama’s negotiating position toward an international climate pact.

    Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee and a vocal climate change doubter, said it’s important to send a message about congressional disapproval, even with Obama’s veto.

    “While I fully expect these CRA resolutions to be vetoed, without the backing of the American people and the Congress, there will be no possibility of legislative resurrection once the courts render the final judgments on the president’s carbon mandates,” he said on the Senate floor shortly before the Senate’s action on the resolutions.

    Twenty-seven states and various energy and business interests are suing the Obama administration to stop the existing plant rule, saying it violates the Clean Air Act and states’ constitutional rights.

    They are seeking an immediate halt to the rule while it is litigated, something the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit could decide on later this month.

    All Republican candidates for the 2016 presidential election want to overturn the rules.

    In addition to the veto, Obama is formally sending the resolutions back to the Senate to make clear his intent to disapprove of them.

    Obama has now vetoed seven pieces of legislation, including five this year, the first year of his presidency with the GOP controlling both chambers of Congress.

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      NPR: President Obama Unveils New Power Plant Rules In ‘Clean Power Plan’

      Repost from National Public Radio (NPR)
      [Editor: The 29-minute video doesn’t really begin until minute 4:00 with Gina McCarthy of the EPA.  President Obama takes the podium at minute 4:25.  – RS]

      President Obama Unveils New Power Plant Rules In ‘Clean Power Plan’

      August 03, 2015 2:30 PM ET

      President Obama formally unveiled his plan to cut power plant emissions — some two years in the making — calling it the “single most important step that America has ever made in the fight against global climate change.”

      Speaking at the White House, the president said the plan includes the first-ever Environmental Protection Agency standards on carbon pollution from U.S. power plants. Over the next few years, each state will have the chance to create its own plan, he said, adding: “We’ll reward the states that take action sooner.”

      Toward the end of his remarks, Obama cited other environmental issues, such as combating acid rain, where efforts have been successful even though it seemed hard at the time.

      “We can figure this stuff out, as long as we’re not lazy about it,” he said.

      The president compared the requirement of cutting carbon emissions by 32 percent to taking 166 million cars off the road.

      Our original post continues:

      In a new push to confront climate change, President Obama is announcing new standards that would cut the amount of carbon pollution produced by America’s power plants.

      “These are the first-ever national standards that address carbon pollution from power plants,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which adds that power plants are the largest source of carbon pollution in the U.S., generating 32 percent of the total emissions.

      Key elements of the Clean Power Plan include a requirement that would cut the power industry’s carbon pollution by 32 percent below 2005 levels in the next 15 years. The plan also seeks to boost renewable energy.

      The White House says that between now and 2015, the changes will mean better health for Americans — preventing up to 3,600 premature deaths — along with bringing energy savings for U.S. consumers.

      You can read the plan at the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

      NPR’s Scott Horsley reports:

      “The final version of the EPA’s clean power plan requires somewhat deeper cuts in power plant emissions than a draft version made public a year ago. The power plant rule is the centerpiece of President Obama’s broader climate agenda. And he’s urging other big countries to take similarly aggressive action in advance of an international climate summit in Paris later this year.

      “Opponents, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, have promised to fight the climate rule, and they’re urging states not to comply with the EPA regulation.

      “The final rule does provide a somewhat more flexible timeline for power companies, with the deadline for action pushed back two years to 2022.”

      The president is announcing the plan along with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.

      In announcing the plan Monday, the EPA also said, “2014 was the hottest year in recorded history, and 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all occurred in the first 15 years of this century.”

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