Analysis Shows that Pruitt’s Proposed New Clean Power Plan Will Do More Harm Than Doing Nothing

There’s a lot we don’t know about what EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is up to these days, as he recently spent $25,000 of taxpayer money to have a “cone of silence” placed around his desk. We don’t know exactly what he’s saying, but it’s not hard to guess. Especially since a freedom of information request revealed who he is whispering to--fossil fuel executives, on a regular basis. Whispering assurances, no doubt, that won’t have to wait much longer to resume polluting as much as they want. Scott Pruitt’s EPA certainly won’t do anything that might get between them and their profits.

His latest move – to overturn the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), the one he could barely contain himself to wait this long before trying – will likely not stand up to legal challenges, given how it blatantly reeks of conflict of interest. Pruitt is, in essence, setting himself up as both plaintiff and judge, acting on a motion that he himself put forward when he was the attorney general of Oklahoma.

The law does still hold him accountable to protect this country’s environment. What that means is that he will have to offer some other rule to replace the CPP with. Looking for something that would be less objectionable to his friends in the fossil fuel industry, the ones he’s been spending so much time whispering on the phone with, he is proposing an “inside the fence line” approach as an alternative.

What this means is that instead of looking at a utility’s entire portfolio, and asking them to meet emission targets by phasing out say, a coal plant and replacing it with a wind farm or a gas-fired plant, it instead takes each plant as a given, with EPA authority reduced to what can be done within the fence line of that plant. So instead of being compelled to replace that coal plant, they might be asked to consider trying to improve its efficiency.

What would the implications of such a rule change be? No need to speculate, the math has been done. A new map published by Harvard and Syracuse Universities, shows a number of new pollution hot spots that will result if the CPP is replaced by an inside the fence rule.

The problem is fine particle pollution, which is “is associated with increases in premature deaths, hospitalizations from respiratory and heart disease, and worsening asthma attacks in people with asthma.” The new hotspots would occur in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Texas and other states. It is estimated that “this increase in air pollution would lead to an increase in premature deaths in 17 states compared to no new policy, according to the study.”

Meanwhile, according to Jonathan Buonocore, a Research Associate at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, “Carbon standards like the Clean Power Plan would prevent approximately 3,500 premature deaths from air pollution every year.” The study found that Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas have the most to lose from the repeal of the Clean Power Plan with an estimated 230 to 330 extra premature deaths per year without flexible carbon standards like those originally proposed.

Charles Driscoll, University Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Syracuse University, had previously studied the implications of an inside the fence rule in an article published in Nature Climate Change in 2015. The study found that a “flexible policy that counts demand-side energy efficiency towards compliance yields the greatest health benefits.” That flexibility would not be allowable under Pruitt’s proposal.

On hearing the new proposal from the EPA, Driscoll said, “The bottom line is that the ‘inside the fence line’ approach would do more harm than good. Not only would it cause thousands of extra deaths and cost billions every year compared to the Clean Power Plan, it would inflict more harm than doing nothing at all.”

How could a new environmental plan cause more harm than doing nothing at all? “Our analysis shows that improving the efficiency of older power plants will move them up the dispatch list and they will operate over a longer period.  There would be no change in fuel source or emission controls so their emissions of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants would increase causing a deterioration in air quality,” Driscoll said.

In other words, the new rule would essentially force them to burn coal longer, which is clearly what Pruitt intends.

Taking a quick look at the EPA’s website on the page that says, “Our Mission,” one finds the following:

“EPA's purpose is to ensure that:

  • all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment where they live, learn and work;
  • national efforts to reduce environmental risk are based on the best available scientific information;
  • federal laws protecting human health and the environment are enforced fairly and effectively;
  • environmental protection is an integral consideration in U.S. policies concerning natural resources, human health, economic growth, energy, transportation, agriculture, industry, and international trade, and these factors are similarly considered in establishing environmental policy;”

There’s more, but that should be enough be make the point. In failing to follow any of these principles, Pruitt is clearly guilty of dereliction of his duty as EPA Administrator and needs to be removed from office immediately.

Map from peer-reviewed results published in Nature Climate Change. Courtesy of Syracuse University.