Category Archives: US Environmental Protection Agency

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 appoints another oil industry VIP, recording reveals industry execs celebrating their win

    Repost from Politico
    [Editor: Significant quote: “The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a confirmation hearing Thursday, March 28.”  See and contact committee members here: https://www.energy.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/members  – RS]

    Recording Reveals Oil Industry Execs Laughing at Trump Access

    The tape of a private meeting was made shortly after the lawyer for an influential industry group was tapped for a high-level post at the Department of the Interior.

    By LANCE WILLIAMS, March 23, 2019
    President Donald Trump and acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt.
    President Donald Trump and acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. | AP

    Gathered for a private meeting at a beachside RitzCarlton in Southern California, the oil executives were celebrating a colleague’s sudden rise. David Bernhardt, their former lawyer, had been appointed by President Donald Trump to the powerful No. 2 spot at the Department of the Interior.

    Just five months into the Trump era, the energy developers who make up the Independent Petroleum Association of America had already watched the new president order a sweeping overhaul of environmental regulations that were cutting into their bottom lines — rules concerning smog, fracking and endangered species protection.

    Dan Naatz, the association’s political director, told the conference room audience of about 100 executives that Bernhardt’s new role meant their priorities would be heard at the highest levels of Interior.

    “We know him very well, and we have direct access to him, have conversations with him about issues ranging from federal land access to endangered species, to a lot of issues,” Naatz said, according to an hourlong recording of the June 2017 event in Laguna Niguel provided to Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

    The recording gives a rare look behind the curtain of an influential oil industry lobbying group that spends more than $1 million per year to push its agenda in Congress and federal regulatory agencies. The previous eight years had been dispiriting for the industry: As IPAA vice president Jeff Eshelman told the group, it had seemed as though the Obama administration and environmental groups had put together “their target list of everything that they wanted done to shut down the oil and gas industry.” But now, the oil executives were almost giddy at the prospect of high-level executive branch access of the sort they hadn’t enjoyed since Dick Cheney, a fellow oilman, was vice president.

    “It’s really a new thing for us,” said Barry Russell, the association’s CEO, boasting of his meetings with Environmental Protection Agency chief at the time, Scott Pruitt, and the then-Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke. “For example, next week I’m invited to the White House to talk about tax code. Last week we were talking to Secretary Pruitt, and in about two weeks we have a meeting with Secretary Zinke. So we have unprecedented access to people that are in these positions who are trying to help us, which is great.”

    In that Ritz-Carlton conference room, Russell also spoke of his ties to Bernhardt, recalling the lawyer’s role as point man on an association legal team set up to challenge federal endangered species rules. “Well, the guy that actually headed up that group is now the No. 2 at Interior,” he said, referring to Bernhardt. “So that’s worked out well.”

    Today, Bernhardt is in line for a promotion: the former oil industry lobbyist has been nominated by Trump to be secretary of the Interior. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a confirmation hearing Thursday, March 28. Bernhardt has been running the department since early January, when Zinke resigned amid an ethics scandal. The post gives Bernhardt influence over regulations affecting energy production on millions of acres of public lands, deciding who gets to develop it, how much they pay and whether they are complying with the law.

    An Interior Department spokeswoman, Faith Vander Voort, said, “Acting Secretary David Bernhardt has had no communication or contact with either Barry Russell or Dan Naatz.” The IPAA executives were not available to comment on this story, a spokeswoman said.

    At the meeting, the association’s leaders distributed a private “regulatory update” memo that detailed environmental laws and rules that it hoped to blunt or overturn. The group ultimately got its way on four of the five high-profile issues that topped its wish list.

    Trump himself was a driving force behind deregulating the energy industry, ordering the government in 2017 to weed out federal rules “that unnecessarily encumber energy production.” In a 2017 order, Zinke called for his deputy secretary—Bernhardt—to make sure the department complied with Trump’s regulatory rollbacks.

    The petroleum association was just one industry group pushing for regulatory relief — the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. Oil and Gas Association and the Western Energy Alliance also were active. But since IPAA created its wish list, the Interior Department has acceded to nearly all its requests:

    Rescinded fracking rules meant to control water pollution. Frackers pressure-inject water and chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release oil and gas. In 2015, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management moved to minimize water pollution caused by fracking, setting standards for well construction and proper management of fracking fluids. For the first time, the new rule also required frackers to get federal permits, a costly and time-consuming process, the industry complained.

    The IPAA sued, contending the rule was not needed because fracking was already regulated by states. Under Trump, Interior sided with the energy industry, and in 2017 the rule was rescinded.

    Withdrawn rules that limit climate-change causing methane gas releases. An oil strike can release clouds of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. When producers lack the means to capture methane and sell it as natural gas, they either burn it or release it into the air. In 2016, to fight global warming, the BLM issued a rule sharply limiting these practices and imposing a royalty fee on operators who wasted natural gas on public lands.

    IPAA sued, complaining producers would face huge financial losses. Trump’s Interior Department sided with the industry and in 2018 rescinded key provisions of the rule.

    Abandoned environmental restoration of public land damaged by oil development. To offset the harm of oil production, the BLM often required producers to pay for restoration projects as a condition of their permits. This practice of “compensatory mitigation” is used by many government agencies. In 2015, then-President Obama ordered Interior to set a goal of “no net loss for natural resources” when issuing development permits.

    IPAA pushed back hard against the “no net loss” standard, arguing that developers might be saddled with exorbitant mitigation costs. In 2017, Trump himself ordered the repeal of the Obama mitigation rule. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke attacked the concept as Un-American.

    Ended long-standing protections for migratory birds. Every year, millions of migratory birds are killed when they fly into power lines, oil waste pits and other energy development hazards, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says. Since the 1970s, the service has promoted industrial safety practices to protect birds from accidental harm—and has prosecuted and fined energy companies responsible for the deaths of these birds.

    IPAA complained it was unfair to prosecute energy companies engaged in legal activities that unintentionally harmed birds. In 2017, Trump’s Interior Department called a halt to prosecuting companies for the “incidental” deaths of birdlife. Bernhardt played an important role in crafting the legal opinion that gutted these protections, emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show.

    “The IPAA’s wish list was granted as asked, in the executive order, and in the actions taken by the Department of the Interior,” said Nada Culver, senior counsel for the Wilderness Society environmental group, who reviewed the document for Reveal. “It pains me to say it.”

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      Pruitt resigns, but replacement Wheeler ‘should scare anyone who breathes’

      Repost from The Energy Mix, Full story: POLITICO

      Pruitt resigns, but replacement Wheeler ‘should scare anyone who breathes’

      July 6, 2018, By Eric Wolff
      Andrew Wheeler is pictured. | AP
      As the EPA’s No. 2, Andrew Wheeler could immediately fill Scott Pruitt’s shoes as acting administrator, though President Donald Trump could insert someone above him in a temporary capacity. | Alex Edelman/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

      U.S. environmental groups declared victory yesterday with the resignation of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, following months of unremitting scandal. But they’re already gearing up for a fight against his replacement, Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a veteran coal lobbyist who Politico describes as “smarter and more plugged in to Washington than Scott Pruitt was”.

      “Wheeler is much smarter and will try to keep his efforts under the radar in implementing Trump’s destructive agenda,” said Jeremy Symons, vice president for political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund. “That should scare anyone who breathes.”

      Most of Wheeler’s professional career “has been devoted to resisting attempts to improve the quality of our air and our water and the safety of our communities,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. “He fought against safeguards to limit mercury poisoning. He fought against protections to limit the amount of ozone in our skies. He fought against [controlling] air pollution from neighbouring states. He’s a climate denier. So, sadly, he fits in well with EPA leadership.”

      While Wheeler will take over EPA on an acting basis Monday morning, Pruitt’s permanent replacement will have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Some news reports yesterday suggested that may not happen before mid-term elections November 6, when there is at least a passing possibility of Democrats regaining control of the chamber.

      Pruitt finally left his post under a cloud as “one of the most scandal-plagued Cabinet officials in U.S. history,” the Los Angeles Times reports, with 19 federal investigations—18 of them still in progress—into his conduct while in office. “The departure of the anti-regulatory crusader Pruitt ends a bizarre and tumultuous chapter of the Trump administration that puzzled even some of the president’s staunchest supporters.”

      Trump reportedly held on to Pruitt for as long as he did because the former Oklahoma attorney-general, who previously made a name for himself by avidly suing to block the Obama environmental agenda, was also one of the most effective Cabinet secretaries in implementing Trump’s priorities, including attacks on climate policy, basic science, and clean air and water standards.

      In the end, he became an embarrassment to Trump as well as a disgrace to his country.

      “The spendthrift EPA chief has been a political liability for the White House for months, drawing the attention of federal investigators with scandal after scandal, many of which were linked to his lavish spending of taxpayer money and the use of his position to enrich his family,” the Times notes. “The transgressions include Pruitt’s deal with the wife of a top energy lobbyist for deeply discounted housing, huge raises he gave friends against the instructions of the White House, and his penchant for flying first class. Pruitt used his office to try to secure his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise and also enlisted aides to try to help her land lucrative work elsewhere. He had a $43,000 phone booth installed in his office.” The only Pruitt investigation completed so far concluded that that phone booth broke federal spending laws.

      In the Washington Post, columnist Dana Milbank gets at the paranoia Pruitt brought to an office once devoted to protecting Americans’ air, water, health, and safety. “Pruitt spent the past 16 months turning the Environmental Protection Agency into a paramilitary operation, with the sole purpose of protecting him,” he writes. “Pruitt had spent some $4.6 million on security, enlisting a round-the-clock detail that followed him everywhere, even to Disneyland and Italy, whisking him from his office — where a $43,000 soundproof phone booth cocooned him and a panic alarm connected him directly to the security office—to the $50-a-night room in a condominium that he had rented from a lobbyist.”

      Milbank introduces a new unit of measure for the duration of Pruitt’s tenure.

      “Pruitt survived—for 503 days from swearing-in to resignation,” he writes. “That’s an eternity in the Trump administration. Anthony Scaramucci set the standard, lasting just 10 days in his job managing White House communications. If we take Scaramucci’s 10-day figure to be the standard of measurement—one ‘mooch’—then Pruitt survived an amazing 50.3 mooches, even while enduring more than a dozen scandals, any one of which would have doomed a lesser man.”

      “Scott Pruitt’s corruption and coziness with industry lobbyists finally caught up with him,” said Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica told the Times. “We’re happy that Pruitt can no longer deceive Americans or destroy our environment.”

      But much as the U.S. environmental community is taking a victory lap for the campaigns and advocacy that helped push Pruitt out the door, Wheeler will be a different sort of challenge.

      “The man taking the reins at the Environmental Protection Agency after Scott Pruitt’s downfall is a longtime Washington insider and coal lobbyist who is set to pursue the same anti-regulation agenda—only without all of Pruitt’s baggage,” Politico notes. A former chief of staff to climate-denying Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and lobbyist for coal baron and avid Trump ally Bob Murray of Murray Energy, “Wheeler is a smooth insider with a penchant for policy details and a reputation for working well with both friends and adversaries. But those who have dealt with him say he’s on board with the broad deregulatory agenda that Pruitt and Trump are pursuing.”

      “The problem with the Pruitt approach is it’s like a sugar high,” Democratic lobbyist and former Energy Department staffer Jeff Navin told Politico’s Eric Wolff. “It feels really, really good for a moment, but if you’re not following rules and procedure, not laying down substance for the decision you’re making, you’re not going to last very long.”

      “He’s like Mike Pence is to Trump,” another unnamed source told Wolff. “He’s behind the scenes. He’ll get a lot done and doesn’t need to be in the news.”

      “The impression he creates is very personable, respectful, good listener,” said one EPA employee. “He’s very interested in being involved in the substantive issues. He’s ready to get involved in our issues.” But there’s little doubt that his job will be to advance the radical deregulation that defined Pruitt’s tenure.

      “I think that Andrew is well aware of the president’s agenda, and the parts of the agenda that are the responsibility of the EPA,” said lobbyist and political consultant Andy Ehrlich, a longtime associate of Wheeler’s. “I would expect based on my experience with Andrew to do what he can to see that the president’s agenda at the EPA is fulfilled in a methodical and thoughtful way.”

      “Pruitt and Wheeler may have some small differences: The Democratic aide said Wheeler might offer more support to the agency’s research, in contrast to Pruitt,” Politico states. “But people who know Wheeler see him as a ‘true believer’ in rolling back regulations who is comfortable in the weeds of policy.”

      And “that’s the worry of environmental groups, which note the years Wheeler spent working with Inhofe, who calls human-caused global warming a ‘hoax,’ and Murray, a fierce opponent of EPA’s climate regulations.”

      Meanwhile, “in his short time at the EPA, Pruitt managed to do more to undermine the environmental protection work of its career scientists, analysts, and enforcement officers than any leader of the agency since the early days of the Reagan administration,” the LA Times notes. “Former agency chiefs—including some who served GOP presidents—were shocked by Pruitt’s denial of climate change and his hostility toward many bedrock environmental rules.”

      The paper adds that Pruitt “often was unabashedly at war with his own agency, alleging it was under the control of activist bureaucrats working in tandem with environmental groups to impose a radical agenda. His stewardship of the agency reflected a Republican Party that has grown disenchanted with environmental rules and an administration that has little regard for the concerns of voters outside its base.”

      On Grist, meanwhile, reporter Zoya Terstein explains why she’ll miss the ethically-challenged administrator—and asks readers to hear her out before they bring their toddlers to Grist HQ. (Her “love letter to Scott Pruitt” also contains a bunch of helpful, one-by-one links to the multiple Pruitt scandals that we consistently under-reported on The Mix, rather than letting it crowd out the more productive news going on in climate and energy.)

      “Most of the time, the things that go on in the federal government, however consequential they may be, seem to bore Americans to tears,” Terstein writes.. “(Just look at voter turnout stats for midterm elections.) Whether you liked it or not, Scott Pruitt made the public pay attention. Fancy lotionstactical pantsChick-Fil-A? That’s dramaSecret phone booths? A 24/7 security detail? That’s intrigue. Getting your aides to pay for your hotel rooms? That’s petty. Pruitt was a veritable scandal-factory of his own making, and the wrongdoings were so juicy we literally couldn’t look away! I mean, the dude spent over 1,500 taxpayer dollars on a dozen fountain pens. Pens!

      “As time went on, it began to seem like Pruitt didn’t actually care about how many bridges he burned, how many federal investigations were launched, or even whether other members of the GOP were calling for his resignation. But we cared! The scandals were so egregious, so bizarre, so shallow and grasping, that people kept digging and digging to see what else the guy was up to. And each ethical misdeed focused attention on the work he led: dismantling decades of environmental regulations, cutting EPA staffing numbers to below Reagan-era levels, and striking mentions of climate change from the agency’s website.

      “People got mad! They marched, wrote letters, signed petitions, and sent the EPA multiple copies of Global Warming for Dummies.

      “No wonder the administration rails against ‘fake news.’ Real journalism was able to take down a Trump loyalist.

      “Now, someone else wears the tactical pants at the EPA. His name is Andrew Wheeler. He’s been the agency’s deputy administrator since April, and we haven’t heard a peep out of him. Under his leadership, we’re probably in for far less scandal. But you can bet he’ll keep rolling back regulations.”

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        US Senate Resolution Calling for the Resignation of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt

        Repost from Scribd
        [Editor: Below you will find the title, then the downloadable 5-page Resolution.  – RS]

        Resolution Calling on Resignation of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt

        115TH CONGRESS, 2nd SESSION
        Expressing no confidence in the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and calling for the immediate resignation of the Administrator.

        Resolution Calling on Resignation of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt by Tom Udall on Scribd

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