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Why industry loves new Clean Air Act rule but environmentalists do not

Hazy air pollution shrouds downtown Salt Lake City as cars move along Beck Street near 400 West on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020.
Hazy air pollution shrouds downtown Salt Lake City as cars move along Beck Street near 400 West on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The National Mining Association is among those groups praising an announcement Wednesday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that any new Clean Air Act rule will be subject to a cost-benefit analysis before it is allowed to go into effect.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the change means any regulation with the potential to invoke millions in costs or have far-reaching impacts on industry will be scrutinized in a manner that weighs its benefits against costs.

“Today’s action ensures that EPA is consistent in evaluating costs and benefits when developing broad-reaching policies that affect the American public,” Wheeler said.

The EPA, Wheeler said, enjoys vast powers that were often exercised without consistency or transparency.

“President Trump has made regulatory reform a top priority of his administration.”

Rich Nolan, the National Mining Association’s president and CEO, praised the change Wheeler announced.

Today’s rule will greatly improve cost-benefit analysis in the rulemaking process. In the past, cost-benefit analysis was improperly used to target the coal industry through unjustifiable regulations that imposed tremendous compliance costs that significantly outweighed the environmental benefits,” Nolan said.

“We look forward to these clarifications and new procedures taking hold to provide a far more transparent regulatory process and fair accounting practices for the future.”

In 2015, the lack of a proper cost-benefit analysis led the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision to strike down an Obama-era rule that it said failed to weigh the cost of compliance by coal-fired power plants to tamp down pollutants such as mercury against the public health benefits.

Prior to it being struck down, the rule led PacifiCorp to shutter its Carbon power plant west of Price because it would have been to costly to retrofit the 1950s-era plant.

The landmark rule was challenged by 22 GOP-led states, including Utah.

In the ruling, the court pointed out that the EPA refused to consider costs when it crafted its rule, even though its own estimates put the annual costs to power plants at nearly $10 billion a year, while benefits from pollution reductions were pegged at between $4 million and $6 million.

Wheeler said that many EPA statutes, including the Clean Air Act, contain language regarding cost consideration, but there are no regulations that ensure the agency applies the cost-benefit analysis in a consistent manner.

The agency has also put 10,000 active “guidance” documents online that are readily accessible to the public in an effort to provide greater transparency.

Wheeler’s tenure at the agency has brought condemnation from clean air advocates and other groups who say regulations under the Clean Air Act are being gutted, loosening protections for public health.

His announcement brought more criticism.

“This rule will distort EPA’s assessment of the benefits of Clean Air Act safeguards, making it harder to establish vital, lifesaving protections against unhealthy air pollution,” said Ben Levitan, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund.

“The rule puts Americans’ health at risk for no good reason. The incoming Biden administration should immediately take steps to reverse this rule.”