Here’s a neat political trick: if you want to introduce a new law, but you know people will hate it, give it a misleading, nice-sounding name. It’s surprising how well this works. Let me explain.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded in 1970 under Republican President Richard Nixon, and since that time it has helped the country clean up our air, water, and soil at thousands of locations. For many years, the agency was a bipartisan success.
Now, though, the EPA is run by a former coal industry lobbyis, Andrew Wheeler, and it seems more concerned with protecting polluters than with the environment. The latest example is a newly proposed rule that will allow the EPA to ignore a vast swath of scientific research that demonstrates the harmful effects of pollution on people’s health. This includes research on the damage caused by burning coal and other fossil fuels.
(I should note that this new proposal was first introduced by the previous EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, another friend of the fossil fuel industry who sued the EPA 14 times while serving as attorney general for Oklahoma.)
If the EPA were being honest, it would call this new proposal something like “Ignoring the Science on the Harmful Effects of Pollution.” Of course, Congress would never go near a proposal like that, so instead the EPA calls it “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.”
Huh? How can they do that?
Well, there’s nothing to prevent the EPA from calling this proposal “Motherhood and Apple Pie,” but they like to pretend the title has something to do with the content of the new regulation. And it does.
Here’s what the new regulations do: they will allow the EPA to ignore any science where the public doesn’t have access to all of the underlying data–including private, individually identifiable health data. The EPA is pretending that this rule all about openness and transparency (who could object to that?), but actually it’s not that at all. It’s really about protecting the fossil fuel industry.
As The New York Times reported two years ago,
“the proposed new policy has its roots in the fossil fuel industry’s opposition to a groundbreaking 1993 Harvard University study that definitively linked polluted air to premature deaths…. In that study, which began in the mid-1970s, scientists signed confidentiality agreements so they could track the private medical and occupational histories of more than 22,000 individuals in six cities around the country.”
So apparently the fossil fuel industry thought: hmm, how do we prevent the EPA from regulating us when this high-quality study shows that pollution kills? They couldn’t successfully attack the study, so they concocted the strategy of demanding all the confidential data on the participants. When they were told that the data would have to remain secret, they saw their opening: “transparency” would be their mode of attack, aided by their lobbyists Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler.
The Harvard study and hundreds of others like it, which have shown time and time again that air pollution kills people, will be ignored if the proposed new EPA regulation goes into effect.
Not surprisingly, public health scientists and medical experts have spoken out strongly against the EPA’s proposed new rules. The American Association for the Advancement of Science said, in a statement last month, that the rules would allow the EPA “to exclude the best available science from informing EPA regulations, making it difficult for the agency to fulfill its mission to protect environmental and human health.” Writing in The Hill, biostatisticians Roger Peng (a colleague of mine) and Steve Pierson wrote that the new rule
“weakens EPA’s scientific process and undermines its mission to protect the environment and the health of the U.S. population.”
So that’s how it’s done. The Trump administration’s EPA wants to enable more pollution for its friends in the fossil fuel industry, but they can’t say that out loud. The only beneficiaries of this newly proposed rule will be industries that don’t want to pay for the cost of cleaning up their pollution. Meanwhile, everyone who breathes air–which, the last time I checked, included every human being on the planet–will suffer from dirtier air, water, and soil.
But don’t tell that to the EPA. They are still claiming that this is just about “transparency.”