The Clean Power Plan’s Counterfeit Benefits

Gina McCarthy (L) and Scott Pruitt

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed repeal of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan is a milestone. No Republican administration has ever mustered the courage to roll back a major EPA regulation.

In a clever twist, the Trump administration has done so by directly challenging the plan’s purported health benefits.

Although the Clean Power Plan was pitched as a way to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from coal-fired power plants, averting climate change was not how the Obama EPA justified the rule. In 2015 House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith forced Obama’s EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, to acknowledge that the plan would produce no change in global temperatures. Instead, the EPA justified the net benefit of the rule based on collateral reductions in power plants’ emissions of fine particulate matter. In regulatory parlance, this soot is called PM2.5.

While the compliance costs to industry of the Clean Power Plan could be as high as $33 billion a year, the Obama EPA claimed that the economic benefits from reducing PM2.5 emissions would be even larger—as much as $55 billion a year.

What are the supposed $55 billion in economic benefits? That sum is intended to represent the value of thousands of premature deaths allegedly prevented every year by the Clean Power Plan via the co-benefit of reduced PM2.5 emissions. The EPA values “lives saved” at around $9 million each. Thousands times millions equal billions.

EPA staff invented this calculus in 1996 to justify the agency’s first effort to regulate PM2.5, although there’s no scientific evidence, then or now, to support the notion that particulates in outdoor air kill people.

The EPA regulated them anyway, stiff-arming not only the Republican-controlled Congress’s demands for proof of the danger of PM2.5 emissions but the objections of then-Vice President Al Gore, who thought the rule too costly.

The Clean Air Act requires air-quality standards for pollutants such as PM2.5 be set at a “safe” level. The EPA has long claimed that there is no safe level of exposure to PM2.5 and that inhalation can cause death within hours. But the EPA could never lower the PM2.5 standard to zero because such a standard could not be attained even if the economy was entirely shut down.

The Trump EPA has now largely jettisoned the notion that PM2.5 is a killer by slashing the supposed economic benefits of reduced emissions by $29 billion per year. That nets out favorably against the rule’s anticipated annual costs of as much as $33 billion.

A robust body of scientific literature—from large epidemiologic studies to clinical research to historical air-quality data—supports the EPA’s reversal. Standing against it are a few decades of dubious agency-funded studies, the underlying data for which the agency has kept well hidden in order to prevent independent analyses. The Obama EPA even defied a congressional subpoena in order to keep its PM2.5 epidemiologic secret.

EPA chief Scott Pruitt has hailed repeal of the Clean Power Plan as the end of the Obama administration’s “war on coal.” It’s more like the beginning of the end.

New York’s Democratic Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and green groups have already announced they will sue. Good luck. When the Supreme Court voted to stay the Clean Power Plan in February 2016, it was a clear signal that the coal industry and red-state plaintiffs would prevail on the merits of any future legal challenge. The EPA’s acknowledgment that the Clean Power Plan has no economic or climate benefits is the final nail in the regulation’s coffin.

Mr. Milloy served on the Trump EPA transition team and is the author of “Scare Pollution: Why and How to Fix the EPA” (Bench Press 2016).

Read more at The Wall Street Journal (subscription required)