Regulation Doesn’t Always Mean Over-Regulation
But That Doesn’t Seem To Register With The Trump Administration, Especially When It Comes To The Environment
The Trump Administration tried to sneak this by over the holiday weekend: a rollback on regulations on coal powered plants that release mercury and a range of toxic chemicals into the air as a by-product of what they do. The change proposed by acting EPA Chief Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry, says current rules aren’t cost-effective or even “necessary”. The new policy won’t go into effect right away, but could within a month or two. This is mainly to the benefit of the coal mining industry, and coal fired power plants, many of which have been shutting down for a lot of reasons. Now maybe they won’t.
Mercury, in particular, is known to cause horrifying and profound birth defects and severe health problems in adults, especially if it works its way into public waterways.
Still, given the amount of dismantling of government rules the Trump administration is doing, especially with the EPA, we understand if your takeaway is: “what else is new”?
Here’s what else:
- This action actually rewards bad actors, and punishes companies that dutifully complied with the regulations that are now getting rolled back. They installed expensive equipment that resulted in them being in line with the stricter regulations. So dropping those regulations doesn’t really save them much money at this point since they’ve already invested it. It will more immediately benefit those companies that were looking for work-arounds and ways to get away with stuff. You can identify these companies generally by the disproportionately large number of actions, and fines levied against them for non-compliance. Usually there are one or two that stand out in any industry because that’s part of their corporate strategy. They’d prefer to spend their money on lawyers and expensive lobbyists and financing the campaigns of friendly politicians than on equipment to improve the health of their workers and the citizens of the towns in which they operate.
- One of the most innovative things the Obama administration did was work out a comprehensive system for assessing the health benefits (or harm) to almost any changes to public policy they proposed. This had never really been considered before to such an extent, and had a huge impact on many of the decisions the Obama administration made. Trump’s folks say that’s a bunch of hooey, because there’s no way of determining ahead of time what those health costs will be, beyond some immediate, directly measurable results. In this case, the EPA says corporations will save $7.4 to $9.6-billion when it allows the increased pollution, but the direct cost to the public in terms of consequences to their health will only be $4 to $6-million. So the cost to business is completely lopsided vs. the cost of prevention for people who might get sick.
First of all, not all cost benefits are equal: is even a lot of extra dollars paid by a corporation really an unfair trade off for someone’s premature death or even a painful course of treatment for an avoidable disease? Even if corporations are paying more to save those lives than “makes sense” on a balance sheet? Secondly, throwing out secondary impacts of changes in policy, like the reduction of other pollutants that will automatically occur when there’s a rule limiting mercury, defies common sense. The Obama administration said the ancillary benefits actually made the value of this program $80-billion in terms of reduced health costs. For things as simple as preventing 130,000 asthma attacks. But the new rules will no longer measure those extended effects. And that could have a huge impact on many environmental programs going forward. To say there’s no way to properly assess the broader impact on cost makes little sense, since everything involved in every proposal about things that haven’t happened yet is also just a projection, so why throw out one estimate just because you don’t like it, in favor of others you like, but may turn out to be way underestimating negative impacts?
Trump keeps bragging about how much deregulation he’s done. As if any and all deregulation by definition is good. Because fewer expensive restrictions on corporations not only help them make more money, but might also result in more jobs. And of course they’ll definitely lead to more jobs in the form of an increasing number of healthcare workers who’ll be needed to treat the many maladies that will result from more toxic particles in the air.
We like deregulation too. We just don’t agree “regulation” always means “over-regulation”, which the Trump administration seems to. When President Nixon started the EPA, it wasn’t because he was a tree-hugging conservationist. It was because corporate America wasn’t self-regulating, and in fact was behaving very, very badly. There’s no reason to believe that’s changed.
These days when we hear Trump crowing about his commitment to “crystal clear” water, we increasingly believe those are just two words that he says because he likes the way they sound, and nothing more…