Climate 411

The Trump administration’s air toxics loophole would intensify environmental injustice

One of the most disturbing aspects of the new coronavirus crisis is that people already struggling with underlying respiratory conditions seem to be at greater risk. This means that vulnerable communities already bearing the brunt of the health harms from dangerous pollution may suffer even more.

Yet the Trump administration has spent the last few weeks racing to roll back policies that safeguard the air we breathe. These rollbacks often impact vulnerable communities the most as well.

One such roll back is the proposed air toxics loophole, which would allow thousands of large industrial facilities nationwide to evade pollution controls and emit more toxic air pollution. In a previous post, we presented analysis of EPA’s own data indicating that the loophole could lead to an increase in emissions of hazardous air pollutants like benzene and mercury by over 49 million pounds across 48 states. We’ve now done further analysis and found that the facilities likely to increase toxic air pollution under this loophole are disproportionately located in vulnerable communities – leading to increased exposure to these dangerous pollutants for primarily minority and low-income neighborhoods.

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Power company commitments to cut carbon pollution are an important step for our climate and health. Here’s what we need next.

Arizona’s largest utility, Arizona Public Service, has joined over a dozen other power companies across the U.S. that have committed to delivering 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050. These commitments, which add to momentum for ambitious climate action and would significantly reduce health-harming pollutants that contribute to soot and smog, are a key step in addressing one of our nation’s leading sources of climate pollution. They also highlight the types of action that will be required across all sectors of the U.S. economy to reach net-zero economy-wide carbon pollution by mid-century, a target guided by science and supported in recent bills introduced in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Not only do these commitments show strong federal policy is feasible, they underscore that the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants ignore the most effective strategies for reducing pollution from the power sector. In fact, nine of the nation’s leading power companies recently submitted a brief in court opposing the Trump administration’s rollback for this very reason.

At the same time, these commitments by themselves are not enough. Due to the cost-effective pollution reduction opportunities in the power sector and the urgent need to reduce climate pollution by electrifying other sectors, even more ambitious near-term targets from power companies will be needed to achieve net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050. In addition, commitments alone from power companies must be followed up with concrete actions that will achieve real reductions in carbon pollution – and reduce other harmful pollutants associated with premature death and respiratory illnesses.

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EPA data emphasizes danger of Trump Administration’s “air toxics loophole”

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the Trump administration undermining our protections against dangerous air pollution during the new coronavirus crisis. But they didn’t just start now.

Possible increase in total air toxic emissions from a subset of facilities eligible to reclassify under the air toxics loophole, aggregated at state and city level. In many areas, this loophole could lead to a quadrupling of air toxics from these facilities. Graphic by EDF.

Air pollution is linked to many of the underlying conditions that make some people especially vulnerable to the virus. For years, the administration has taken actions that would put more of that unhealthy pollution in our air – including through a proposed loophole to our safeguards against air pollution from large industrial sources. Data released by EPA itself shows how this loophole – which the Administration could finalize in the coming months – might expose millions of Americans to a huge increase in toxic air pollution.

Last July, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler proposed to create an air toxics loophole allowing large industrial facilities to increase their emissions of dangerous pollutants. When this proposed rule first emerged, EDF pointed out that EPA’s own data shows more than 3,900 large industrial facilities across the country are potentially eligible to take advantage of this loophole.

But additional data on just a subset of these facilities, released by EPA after the proposal came out, indicates that the proposal could lead to millions of pounds of additional toxic air pollution across 48 states – with many of these facilities located in areas where millions of Americans live and work.

The proposed air toxics loophole would undermine clean air safeguards for large industrial facilities across the country that are currently subject to stringent standards for the emission of mercury, benzene, and other hazardous air pollutants that may cause cancer and have other harmful health impacts. Under the proposal, many of these facilities would be eligible to “reclassify” themselves as smaller sources subject to weaker standards or no standards at all – and therefore could operate with weaker, or no, air pollution controls.

(The proposal would codify a four-page memo that Trump’s EPA issued in January 2018 – with no analysis of air pollution or health impacts. EDF, a coalition of environmental groups, and the State of California challenged that memo in court.  Although the D.C. Circuit rejected these challenges on procedural grounds, the court also found that the memo has no legal force or effect and cannot be relied upon by state permitting authorities or sources.)

In September, EDF and 34 public health, environmental justice, labor and environmental organizations submitted comments strongly opposing the proposed rule. EDF and four other environmental organizations also submitted detailed technical and legal comments emphasizing the danger the rule poses to public health.

Near the close of the comment period, EPA released additional data, including identifying information for specific facilities that could be eligible to reclassify under the proposed rule. EDF analyzed this additional data for clues about the devastating health and environmental impacts the air toxics loophole could have. In response to this additional data, EDF submitted supplemental comments to EPA.

Among other things, our analysis found:

  • EPA’s data covers more than 2,500 facilities that would be eligible to reclassify and increase their emission of dangerous pollutants. EPA identified more than 2,500 facilities that are currently subject to stringent Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards but under the loophole could avoid complying with those standards. This large number of facilities still represents only a subset of the nearly 4,000 facilities nationwide that EPA estimated would be potentially eligible to reclassify under the proposal.
  • A potential 480% increase in nationwide emissions of air toxics from these facilities. While it’s difficult to know if and by how much facilities would increase emissions if they were to take advantage of the proposed loophole, EDF estimates that total air toxics emissions could increase by about 49.2 million pounds per year if all the eligible facilities were to increase their emissions to the maximum extent permitted under the loophole. (The value was estimated by looking at the difference between current total air toxics emissions at these facilities and emissions if facilities increased total air toxics emissions to 75% of 25 tons per year – the threshold that would make these facilities major again – consistent with EPA’s approach.) Due to missing data for some of the facilities on the EPA list, however, this estimate is based on only 60% of the 2,500 facilities identified by EPA – so it could well underestimate the potential increase in emissions that would result from this proposal.

  • The proposed rule could expose millions of Americans in communities across the country to increases in toxic air pollution. Our analysis found facilities potentially eligible to use the loophole to increase their emissions of dangerous pollutants in 48 states. The greatest increases are concentrated in Texas, California, Michigan, and Louisiana. More than 3.7 million people live in the ten cities with the greatest possible increase in air toxics from this loophole.

After EPA issued the January 2018 memo that first opened the air toxics loophole, EDF issued a white paper finding that it could affect as many as 26 facilities in the Houston-Galveston region alone – and lead to hundreds of thousands of pounds of additional toxic pollution. Now, EPA’s own data reinforces the devastating impact of this loophole, from California to Michigan. EDF will continue to oppose this dangerous failure of EPA to uphold its responsibility to safeguard human health and the environment.

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The pollution-enabling impacts of the Clean Power Plan “replacement”

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has suggested that ACE – the Trump administration’s harmful and deeply flawed replacement for the Clean Power Plan – is just as effective in protecting climate and public health as its predecessor.

Wheeler is wrong.

ACE will achieve virtually no reductions in carbon pollution from power plants and will increase health-harming pollution in many communities across the country. This harmful rule represents a huge step backwards at a time when communities across the nation are increasingly suffering devastating impacts from climate change – such as wildfires, extreme weather, coastal flooding, and intense heat waves – that underscore the need for rapid reductions in carbon pollution.

Following the finalization of the ACE rule in June, Wheeler said that when the rule is fully implemented, “we expect to see U.S. power sector CO2 emissions fall by as much as 35 percent below 2005 levels.”

What that claim fails to acknowledge is – that based on EPA’s own analysis – these reductions are projected to occur whether or not there is a federal policy in place. In other words, the ACE rule will accomplish no significant carbon pollution reductions beyond business-as-usual. By claiming credit for reductions that would happen anyway, Wheeler is simply masking the inefficacy of the rule.

The Clean Power Plan was the first-ever policy to set national limits on harmful carbon pollution from existing power plants. The ACE rule, in contrast, contains no binding limits on carbon pollution. Instead, the rule merely provides a list of “heat rate improvement measures” that would incrementally improve the operating efficiency of coal plants, leaving it up to the states to decide which – if any – of those measures to apply.

When the Clean Power Plan was finalized in 2015, EPA projected that power sector carbon pollution would be 17 percent below 2005 levels in 2030 under business-as-usual with no federal policy. Due to the plummeting costs of clean energy technologies and the ongoing market shift towards cleaner electricity sources, EPA now projects that power sector carbon pollution under business-as-usual with no federal policy will be much lower, at 35 percent below 2005 levels in 2030. According to EPA, the ACE rule is projected to achieve a trivial 0.7 percent reduction in carbon pollution compared to business-as-usual in 2030.

Worse still, EPA’s own numbers show that the rule would have the perverse impact of incentivizing some coal-fired power plants to operate and pollute more – leading to more carbon pollution in many states compared to no policy at all.

Experts have warned that under the ACE rule, many parts of the country would also see increases in the health-harming pollution that leads to soot and smog. While the Trump administration has tried to downplay the public health consequences of the rule, EPA’s projections show that vulnerable communities around the nation will likely suffer the most from these dangerous pollution increases.

In addition to disregarding the health and well-being of Americans, the years-long effort by the Trump administration to dismantle the Clean Power Plan represents a squandered opportunity to cost-effectively achieve urgently needed reductions in pollution. EDF filed comments on the proposed rule that demonstrate that fact. Our updated analysis using the same power sector model that EPA relies upon shows that carbon pollution reductions of more than 50 percent below 2005 levels in 2030 are possible at similar costs to what the original Clean Power Plan envisioned. The U.S. Energy Information Administration has also found that even greater reductions of 68 percent below 2005 levels can be achieved by 2030 – along with steep reductions in dangerous soot and smog-forming pollution – at modest cost.

Not only are significant reductions in carbon pollution from the power sector possible, they are also long overdue. We are already facing serious consequences from carbon pollution. The latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change make it frighteningly clear that the country and the world are facing unprecedented threats from climate change – and that rapid reductions in climate-destabilizing pollution are needed by 2030 in order to avoid the worst impacts. The devastation from climate change-fueled disasters across the U.S. and the millions of Americans suffering from the health impacts of air pollution underscore the pressing need for reductions in pollution from the power sector, one of the nation’s leading contributors to carbon pollution.

We need real protections against the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens both our environment and our health – not spin from Administrator Wheeler that hides the real impacts of his pollution-enabling rule behind misleading statistics.

Posted in Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, EPA litgation, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Policy / Comments are closed