The Environmental Protections Agency released a proposal on Friday that would weaken Obama-era regulations on mercury emissions from coal power, and in doing so pave the way for coal mining companies to challenge those rules in court. Perhaps more than any other of Trump’s environmental policy rollbacks so far, the specific changes made under the leadership of EPA chief Andrew Wheeler reveal the canyon between the current administration’s idea of what environmental regulation should be and that of its predecessor.
The original Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) rule, was put in place by the Obama administration in 2012 to restrict the release of mercury into the air by coal-powered plants. The cost to plants to install expensive equipment to curb mercury emissions was estimated to be between 7.4 and 9.6 billion. For the Obama-era EPA, the estimated public health benefit was 80 billion dollars a year, a figure that included the prevention of an estimated 11,000 premature deaths. The vast majority of that figure, however, was made up of what are known as co-benefits: indirect benefits of limiting mercury output like the reduction of particulate matter in the air, a known cause of heart and lung disease. In 2012, 80 billion dollars in public health benefits outweighed the smaller cost to the industry.
Wheeler’s proposed rule would ignore those co-benefits — the widespread prevention of death and disease, that is — and rewrite the cost-benefit analysis that serves as the rule’s legal justification. The new number for the cumulative public health benefits of the rule? 4 to 6 million dollars a year, or .0075 percent of the old estimate. The new rule, the agency said in a press release, “proposes to correct flaws in the  Supplemental Finding and proposes to make a revised determination that it is not appropriate and necessary to regulate HAP [Hazardous Air Pollutants] emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants.”
If implemented, the changes themselves would not erase the rule, but their drastic reevaluation of the cost-benefit analysis would make it difficult to justify the cost to the industry. In this way, the EPA would signal to the industry its opportunity to challenge the regulations in court.
Environmental activists were outraged. “This policy Andrew Wheeler and Donald Trump proposed today means more pregnant women, young children, and the elderly will be exposed to deadly neurotoxins and poisons, just so wealthy coal and oil barons can make a few extra bucks,” said the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign Director Mary Anne Hitt. “Virtually every coal plant in the U.S. has already met this lifesaving standard, and now Trump is recklessly trying to roll it back.”
A proposal on the MATS rule has been anticipated since August, and indeed most expected the administration to downplay the public health benefits in favor of the coal industry. Because of the 40 percent decrease in coal production over the last ten years, however, and lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill to keep the rule in place, most expected the EPA to simply make it more difficult to establish new rules in the future. As a result, the extent of the revision came as something of a surprise to many, including the electric utility companies that have already invested billions meeting the new requirements with less-polluting equipement. “This is like when your four-year-old kid tries to clean up your kitchen — it actually makes things worse,” said one unnamed Washington utility lobbyist. “The rule itself forced coal plant shutdowns, but they aren’t coming back.”
In July, those same lobbying groups sent a letter to the EPA urging it to leave the rule in place. In it, they described how the industry had spent 18 billion dollars complying with the new standards, and had successfully reduced mercury emissions by nearly 90 percent since 2012.
The 2012 rule indeed ran many smaller plants out of business, who couldn’t afford to pay for the new equipment. Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy Corporation, became the industry stalwart after the rule’s implementation, challenging the administration in court for years and condemning the rule’s contribution to the decline of U.S. coal. Murray is also a former client of Wheeler’s, who was a lobbyist before joining the EPA.
Wheeler, however, insisted that the new proposal was solely in response to a 2015 Supreme Court decision that instructed the Obama administration to reevaluate economic costs to the industry. It did, and the rule was upheld, despite renewed legal challenges from the industry. “We don’t answer to the utility industry,” he said. “We don’t answer to the coal industry. We answer to Congress and the courts, and the Supreme Court told us we didn’t get it right. We have to redo it.” That the agency has to change the rule, however, is simply not true, because since the rule’s successful reimplementation no such court ruling has been made.