Last week, President Trump signed a new memo to the EPA that repeals several Obama-era anti-pollution regulations, while opening up potential opportunities for companies to work around existing clean air standards.
The memo, entitled, “Promoting Domestic Manufacturing and Job Creation — Policies and Procedures Relating to Implementation of Air Quality Standards,” was released with little fanfare on the part of current EPA head Scott Pruitt, who has recently found himself embroiled in a series of ethics scandals
Many recent EPA memos have concerned themselves with the enforcement of the Clean Air Act and the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). The NAAQS sets strict limits for six common air pollutants, including ozone, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide. These limits, according to the EPA’s official statement, have become increasingly stringent over time, making it more difficult for manufacturing and related industries to acquire the necessary government certifications.
The most recent memo significantly reduces deadlines for the approval of State Implementation Plans (SIPs), in which states must propose strategies for cleaning up polluted regions in accordance with the Clean Air Act. It also encourages states to include “background pollution” caused by countries like China and India as part of their own calculations, and allows them to use less-polluted regions of their own states (or other states entirely) to “offset” their own polluted areas. Both these provisions open the door for companies to pursue environmentally hazardous practices while justifying the extent of their pollution using creative math and selective data.
This is the fourth such memo released by the EPA in the past few months. The first two, written by EPA Air Office head Bill Wehrum, reduce the department’s obligation to take action against companies when their actual emissions do not match EPA standards. They also controversially repeal the Clinton-era “Once In, Always In,” policy, in which heavily polluting entities cannot be downgraded after being designated as “major” sources of hazardous pollution. The third memo, written by Mr. Pruitt, allows companies to downplay emissions estimates by redefining how those emissions are calculated.
In an official EPA news release, Mr. Pruitt is quoted saying that the newest memo will “ensure that the EPA carries out its core mission,” adding in particular that it will also reduce “regulatory burdens for domestic manufacturing.” While acting as Oklahoma Attorney General, Mr. Pruitt had also described himself as, “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda,” and his denial of the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change has drawn severe criticism.
The EPA news release includes laudatory quotations from conservative and Republican-affiliated environmental officers from several states, including Arizona, Wisconsin, and California, as well as the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, a trade association that actively campaigns against government regulations in favor of private business interests.
Carbon monoxide (left) and sulfur dioxide (right) are both regulated under the NAAQS
Several other environmental groups have also denounced the recent memos, filing a lawsuit against the EPA in response; though the memos themselves are primarily concerned with internal EPA practices, environmental groups fear that these changes may be exploited by heavily polluting companies to avoid meeting clean air guidelines. One party to the lawsuit, the Environmental Integrity Project, released a report predicting that the new repeals could allow major industrial plants to quadruple their output of hazardous chemicals, including methanol, lead (a neurotoxin), and benzene (a carcinogen). Much of this pollution would directly impact the neighborhoods adjacent to these plants, made up largely of minority groups living below the poverty line.
Referencing the memos, John Walke, the director for clean air at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Hill, “I think Mr. Wehrum has decided this is likely a one-term administration and he’s going to devote his full resources to rolling back clean air, climate and public health protections in the time available to him.”
Not everyone is in agreement with these dire predictions, however. Jeff Holmstead, the Bush-era head of the EPA air pollution office, takes the opposite view: “[Environmentalists] have yet to come up with any real-world examples of how that might happen,” he told The Hill, adding that “these reforms are not going to lead to pollution increases.”