Category Archives: Federal deregulation

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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    Trump executive order clears way to ship liquified natural gas in bomb trains

    Repost from OilPrice.com
    [Editor: This article appears in OilPrice.com with a completely misleading title.  The report is highly informative about the Trump administration’s stripping of regulatory oversight of the energy industry.  This news is alarming and should be taken seriously by environmentalists.  SIGNIFICANT QUOTE: “…there is still a wide margin for risk if a tank of LNG were ruptured or caused in any other way to come into contact with air. When exposed to air, the liquefied natural gas will rapidly convert back into an ultra-flammable gas and begin to evaporate.”  See also: Google coverage of Trump’s executive order.  – R.S.]

    [MISLEADING TITLE…] Environmentalists’ “Bomb Train” Concerns Are Overblown
    By Haley Zaremba – Apr 13, 2019, 12:00 PM CDT

    Smoke

    This week president Donald Trump signed two executive orders aimed at speeding up the development and functionality of oil and gas projects in the United States. The orders will ease the process of building new oil and gas pipelines and put up extra hurdles for state agencies that want to intervene, a move immediately decried by many state officials and environmentalists.

    The executive orders are intended to curtail officials’ power to limit the oil and gas sector at the state level by changing federal agencies’ issued instructions, or “guidance”. One executive order further includes a directive to curb shareholder ballot initiatives concerning environmental and social policies, while the second order, focused on border-crossing energy projects, takes the power to approve or deny pipelines and other infrastructure crossing over the country’s borders away from the Secretary of State and gives the responsibility wholly to the president.

    Furthermore, President Trump’s executive action also specifically directs the Department of Transportation to change its rules concerning the transport of natural gas, requiring the agency to permit the shipment of liquefied natural gas by rail and by tanker truck. This detail of Wednesday’s executive orders has already proven to be extremely divisive. The directive would open up new markets with major demand for U.S. natural gas but moving the potentially explosive substance by rail could cause potentially catastrophic accidents if one of these train cars were to derail.

    Despite the risks, the move is counted as a major victory for railroads and the natural gas sector, which have been lobbying for years for just this sort of initiative. Proponents of the order argue that it’s necessary to deliver natural gas to the needy Northeast, where there are not sufficient pipelines to meet demand. They also argue that delivering more natural gas to the U.S. Northeast via road and rail would make it possible to use LNG to power ships and trains. One such advocate, head of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas trade group Charlie Riedl, told Bloomberg that “there are all sorts of new opportunities where you can use rail much more efficiently.”

    The initiative has other potential benefits as well, such as offsetting the steep decline of coal shipments by rail, but for many, the drawbacks far outweigh all these silver linings. You don’t need to look too far to find plenty of cautionary tales from previous experiments in sending oil and gas by rail, from spills, explosions, and accidents to a runaway oil train in Quebec that killed nearly 50 people when it derailed in a small town in 2013.

    The natural gas that would be shipped in train cars and tanker trucks will be chilled to 260 degrees Fahrenheit below zero (-167 Celsius) and is extremely space efficient, taking up just 1/600th of its volume in a gaseous state. This form of liquefied natural gas is already being shipped all around the world all the time, including within the U.S., where it is driven in trucks to storage facilities.

    In this liquefied, super-chilled state, natural gas is not flammable on its own and cannot be ignited and is actually considered much safer to ship than crude oil. While that sounds like any cause for alarm and cries of “bomb trains” is overblown, however, there is still a wide margin for risk if a tank of LNG were ruptured or caused in any other way to come into contact with air. When exposed to air, the liquefied natural gas will rapidly convert back into an ultra-flammable gas and begin to evaporate.

    One staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, Emily Jeffers, told Bloomberg that Trump’s plan to ship natural gas by rail is a “disaster waiting to happen,” going on to say that under the guidelines of the executive order “you’re transporting an extraordinarily flammable and dangerous substance through highly populated areas with basically no environmental protection.”

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      Government deregulation without limits – FAA comes under criticism

      Repost from The Register-Guard, Eugene, OR
      [Quote: “When something bad happens, the government will take action — but over time those regulations and requirements wind up being dropped, reduced or delayed. The 2017 fatal Amtrak derailment near Tacoma, the 2016 oil train derailment in the Columbia River Gorge, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the 2008 financial crisis and countless other events could have been prevented.”]

      Deregulating? DeFazio’s watching

      Posted Mar 27, 2019 at 12:01 AM

      The Boeing 737 jet crashes raise troubling questions that go far beyond one company’s safety record and one federal agency’s watchdog role.

      The history of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft suggests it is an example of how the government’s regulation-and-oversight pendulum has swung too far. The Federal Aviation Administration has lacked both the money and the inclination to adequately oversee aircraft development, instead relying heavily on companies to do their own testing.

      Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio is demanding answers. The Springfield Democrat chairs the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The committee’s investigative staff is doing research, and DeFazio then plans to hold hearings.

      “This is really, really raising questions about the FAA as a watchdog,” he said in a meeting with The Register-Guard editorial board.

      A faulty sensor is being investigated as one cause, and Boeing is working on a software fix. The two-sensor system was developed as a safety feature to prevent a plane from stalling. But it appears the failure of just one sensor can send the aircraft into a powerful, possibly irreversible dive unless the pilots override the system within 40 seconds, according to a New York Times report this week.

      DeFazio promises a tenacious investigation. Among the questions are why the system was designed this way, whether the aircraft was unsafely rushed to market, and why the FAA and Boeing did not require extensive retraining of pilots.

      “This is the first time Boeing has put in a system that took over the plane automatically,” he said. “And they didn’t think they needed to tell people about it — because it’s different from any other Boeing plane ever made?

      “Obviously, maybe not the best idea.”

      For years, the FAA has lacked sufficient inspectors and has outsourced much of that responsibility to the manufacturers. But the FAA is not unique. We now have a government that relies on the honor, integrity and self-supervision of the industries it regulates.

      When something bad happens, the government will take action — but over time those regulations and requirements wind up being dropped, reduced or delayed. The 2017 fatal Amtrak derailment near Tacoma, the 2016 oil train derailment in the Columbia River Gorge, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the 2008 financial crisis and countless other events could have been prevented.

      “It’s repeated time and time again,” DeFazio said. “There are limits to deregulation, which in many cases have been exceeded.”

      Oregon has its own history of unwatchful eyes. The Cover Oregon health insurance fiasco could have been averted through closer, more-knowledgeable oversight and insistence on stronger testing of the technology throughout its development. Better oversight — not to mention much-better planning in the first place — might have saved the state from wasting millions of dollars in the Highway 20 reconstruction between the valley and the coast.

      Each time, government and the public vow to learn from these lessons. Then we relax and we forget.

      When DeFazio and his congressional colleagues find the answers they are seeking, our government should heed them.

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