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Know the West

Who wins and who loses with these 4 regulatory rollbacks?

Under a pandemic, Trump backslides pollution and wildlife protection standards.


In late March, as COVID-19 case numbers and fatalities continued to rise, President Donald Trump suggested ending social distancing, because, he said, “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”

This was not just another off-the-cuff Trumpism. Rather, it was a tidy encapsulation of the administration’s ideological approach to regulations in general: The cure (any regulation that might diminish the corporate bottom line) is always worse than the problem (pollution, unsafe food, dangerous working conditions). Therefore, regulations should be discarded.

In one of the Trump administration's many regulatory rollbacks, the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards rule, or MATS, which required coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants, was made much more vulnerable.
Steve Allen/Alamy

Over the last three years, the Trump administration has employed this logic to eviscerate or eliminate dozens of environmental rules. Since the pandemic took hold, the pace of rollbacks has only increased, with the administration slashing rules on automobile efficiency and emissions, the disposal of toxic coal ash, the killing of migratory birds and more.

The starkest — though by no means only — display of this administration’s attitude toward cures and trade-offs was the April 16 dissolution of the legal basis for the Obama-era Mercury and Air Toxic Standards rule, or MATS, which required coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants.

MATS, which went into effect in 2012, has helped prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks every year, according to an analysis by the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency. According to the Trump administration, however, the public health benefits weren’t enough to justify the projected $9.6 billion-per-year price tag. Trump’s EPA concluded: “The costs of such regulation grossly outweigh the quantified hazardous air pollution benefits.”

As is often the case, when the administration worries about “cost,” it prioritizes and inflates any costs to industry, while ignoring or diminishing those that society would incur without the regulation. The Obama-era analysis of MATS, for example, found that its health benefits, if monetized, would amount to as much as $90 billion per year. And the automobile efficiency standards that the administration is discarding would have saved consumers money on gasoline in the long run.

The architects of the rollbacks, from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, have spent most of their careers serving industry, anti-regulation ideologues or both. A few examples of the rollbacks pushed under the shadow of the coronavirus reveal that the winners are invariably corporate interests or ideologues, while the losers, most often, are the rest of us.

Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals From Electric Utilities (2015)

Coal combustion waste — one of the world’s largest industrial waste streams — contains harmful materials that get into the air, groundwater, lakes and rivers. The 2015 rule gives the EPA authority to regulate coal ash and other solid waste as hazardous under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. When it was first created, it was criticized for being too weak.

Opens a loophole in the rule that allows power producers to dispose of waste in unlined impoundments. (March 3, 2020)

• Electric utilities and power producers that can cut costs by not lining disposal cells.
• Anti-regulatory ideologues.

• Wildlife and people who live near and drink water affected by the impoundments. A 2016 U.S. Civil Rights Commission report found that, more often than not, low-income people of color are most likely to be harmed. Coal ash impoundments at the Four Corners Power Plant in northwestern New Mexico, for example, contaminated groundwater in an area where nearly all of the surrounding population is Indigenous and at least one-third live below the poverty line.


Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards (2012)

The transportation sector is the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. The Obama-era standards required automobile manufacturers to increase fuel economy across the new car fleet by 5% each year, thereby also reducing carbon dioxide and other tailpipe emissions by an estimated 2 billion metric tons over the lives of those vehicles.

In order to “Make Cars Great Again,” the Trump administration is revamping the rules so that, among other things, they will require only a 1.5% annual increase in fuel economy.


• The petroleum industry, which, under the Obama standards, would have seen oil consumption drop by about 2 million barrels per day.
• The automobile industry, which will be able to cut costs, and car buyers, who will save around $1,000 per new car thanks to the rollback — assuming the automakers pass on their savings.

• Any living thing that depends on a stable climate.
• The 444 to 1,000 people who will die prematurely each year because of increased pollution.
• Drivers, who will spend at least $1,000 more on gasoline over the life of a less-efficient vehicle.


The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918)

By the early 1900s, at least a half-dozen bird species, from the Labrador duck to the passenger pigeon, were extinct due to unregulated hunting. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act endeavors to avoid future extinctions by prohibiting the capture or killing of protected birds. By imposing fines as high as $15,000 per killed bird, the MBTA incentivizes industry to minimize “incidental” kills.


In January, the Trump administration finalized a 2017 decision to ignore the prohibition on incidental takes. Now, if a protected bird is killed by a wind turbine blade, industrial pesticide, a commercial fishing longline, a toxic oil-waste pit or mine-tailings pond, there are no legal consequences.

The oil industry, which no longer need worry about the million or so birds it kills annually in pits and ponds. (The Independent Petroleum Association of America specifically requested the rollback just before the Interior Department crafted its legal opinion.)
• Companies like Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield, the owners of the Berkeley Pit, which got a taste of winning when the Trump administration refused to fine them for the 3,000 snow geese that died in the mine’s toxic waters.

• The millions of birds killed each year by industrial infrastructure.
• The wetland conservation projects that are funded by penalty fines, which can be substantial: BP was fined $100 million under the MBTA for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill.
• Bird lovers (and everyone else).


Mercury Air Toxics Standard (2012)

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that accumulates in food chains. It can cause lifelong neurological problems for children exposed in the womb, while exposure during adulthood can compromise the immune system and increase the risk of heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems. The 2012 rule requires the operators of coal-fired power plants — the leading source of mercury in the environment — to use the best available technology to reduce emissions of mercury and associated air pollutants. Compliance would also cut emissions of harmful co-pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide and fine particulate matter.

Trump’s EPA is not directly rolling back the mercury rule. Rather, it’s undermining its legal foundation by determining that it is not “appropriate and necessary” to regulate hazardous air pollutants from power plants under the Clean Air Act. That makes the mercury rule vulnerable to legal challenges. The administration is also altering how costs and benefits are calculated, inflating the costs for compliance while downplaying the benefits.


The coal industry could reap the most from the rollback, which was included in a deregulatory “action plan” that coal baron Robert E. Murray sent to Trump early in his term. However, the industry benefits only if utilities burn more coal, which is currently unlikely, given that coal’s woes are economic, not regulatory.
• The utility industry, which could probably cut costs by shutting off pollution-control equipment. Many utilities have already spent the money installing equipment, however.

Anyone breathing the hazardous air, especially if they live near coal-fired power plants.
• People who eat fish. Mercury emitted into the air often ends up in the water, where it becomes highly toxic methylmercury and works its way through the aquatic food web.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.