It was an early holiday present to the nation's biggest polluters. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced in early December that he was drastically changing the way EPA reviews polluters' compliance – or lack thereof – with the Clean Air Act. Today on Capitol Hill, CPR Member Scholar Emily Hammond will explain that this dramatic shift in policy is a complete abnegation of EPA's statutory responsibilities and, beyond that, puts lives and economic opportunity at risk.
What's especially valuable about Hammond's testimony is the context she provides. Clean Air Act regulations are betes noires for our country's most vocal opponents of strong public health protections. That is because when EPA enforces the Clean Air Act, it shifts the public health costs of pollution back to their source and does so in a way that challenges polluters' perceived power of control over their operations.
To that second point, it is important to remember that Congress established the piece of the Clean Air Act at issue in the hearing – the New Source Review (NSR) program – with broad bipartisan support. Today's polluters may have all the best tools to share their frustrations, from media pundits, well-funded trade associations, lobbyists, and "think tanks" parroting their ideas, to powerful PR campaigns and attack advertising. But when policymakers and the public take a step back from this blood-sport rulemaking (as CPR Member Scholar Thomas McGarity so vividly describes it) and think about the costs and benefits of clean air as we experience them, the immense value of an effectively enforced NSR program is clear.
The New Source Review program is a cornerstone of the Clean Air Act (CAA), as Hammond puts it in her testimony:
Key features of NSR help promote the twin aims of improving dirty air and maintaining relatively clean air. First, new sources of air pollution must get preconstruction permits and install either "best achievable control technology" (BACT) in areas with relatively clean air; or "lowest achievable emission rate" (LAER) in areas that have not attained the ambient air quality standards. Second, existing sources of air pollution were originally grandfathered into the CAA's design, but Congress ensured progress over time by requiring that they, too, obtain permits when they make modifications to their facilities. As the relevant criteria imply, NSR permitting overlays technology-based standards with the quality of the air where a given source of pollution is located, enabling improvement over time and protecting against deterioration of air quality that might otherwise result from construction of new or modification of existing major sources.
As Hammond points out, you can measure the benefits of this program in simple economic terms.
In this context, what did Scott Pruitt propose? Professor Hammond sums it up:
The December 7 Guidance tells major sources of air pollution that they need not fear enforcement if they fail to appropriately calculate projected emissions for NSR purposes. Further, EPA says it will accept polluters' "intent" to minimize pollution in the future as a reason not to require an NSR permit. And in perhaps the most telling sentence of the Guidance, EPA makes a promise to industry that is anathema to its statutory duties: "EPA does not intend to substitute its judgment for that of the owner or operator by 'second guessing' the owner or operator's emission projections."
If Pruitt does this – stands idly by while polluters go about their business without concern for the CAA's mandates – we will all suffer. But some of us will suffer more than others. Major sources of air pollution are often surrounded by communities whose residents bear a disproportionate burden of pollution from multiple sources and suffer from historic and structural forms of economic or social disempowerment.
Looking at the NSR program from that standpoint reveals that it has its shortcomings, to be sure, but Scott Pruitt is not addressing them. Different leadership at EPA would focus on closing loopholes in the NSR program that allow ancient facilities to hobble along without upgrades that would benefit public health. Or it might try improving broader regulatory processes to account for the cumulative impact of multiple pollution sources (air, water, etc.). That kind of reform could save lives, promote economic opportunity, and enhance social resilience.