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Congress and Obama Ignore Health Effects, Budget Savings, Cave to Polluters

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Reading this excellent LA Times editorial criticizing the Obama Administration (and Congress) for forcing the Environmental Protection Agency to stall new EPA rules to curtail toxic emissions and protect public health reminded me how cowardly and corrupt the White House and Congress have become.

We learn once again that for all of the deficit hysteria we see, Washington is too controlled by polluter industries to take sensible actions that could significantly reduce the deficit by lowering America’s health care costs, even as they improve the people’s health.

Suppose, for example, we had thousands of industrial plants with cogeneration facilities (simultaneous production of heat/steam and electricity) with minimal or outdated pollution controls. We built lots of cogeneration in the later 1970s and ’80s to help us use oil, gas and coal more efficiently. Now suppose that if we made an investment in new pollution control of $1.4 billion, the improvement in public health would be worth $22 to $54 billion.

Since the people most vulnerable to harmful emissions are often poor, children, and the elderly, that means a substantial part of the health benefit from curbing emissions would reduce state and federal costs for Medicare, Medicaid, SCHIP and other public health programs. From the LA Times:

Never mind that the economic calculus doesn’t pencil out; according to EPA estimates, the rule on industrial boilers would cost polluters $1.4 billion a year, but the value of its health benefits would range from $22 billion to $54 billion. And never mind that the rule would prevent up to 6,500 premature deaths each year.

So even if the federal budget paid the polluters’ cleanup costs, it would still come out ahead. But of course, the budget deficit doesn’t matter; the corruption of polluter donations to Washington is making the budget worse, and “nevermind . . . 6,500 premature deaths each year.”

The gist of the LA Times editorial is that the White House has ordered EPA to stall on a variety of regulatory efforts, because it fears a political backlash that could harm the President’s 2012 reelection. That’s not new for unprincipled politicians — I’m old enough to remember James Watt, President Reagan’s [Interior Secretary] who took a wrecking ball to environmental mandates, and Bush/Cheney’s “secret” energy policy was premised on giving coal, oil and gas producers whatever they wanted, the environment be damned.

But the practice has become particularly craven in this White House because Obama promised to change things and then folded. As the LA Times notes, he recently issued an Executive Order directing regulatory agencies to hold up on new regulations until they had sufficiently taken business concerns into consideration.

Since analyzing the impacts of new rules on business has been done for decades, the message in restating that now was simple: stall. That’s exactly what EPA is now doing on new regulations that polluting industries oppose, and it’s using Cass Sunstein’s operation at Office of Management and Budget to do it. After explaining that Sunstein may be exceeding previous Executive Orders, the Environmental Law and Policy Blog, explains what’s driving this:

So why is the White House really involved? Because since the mid-term elections it has been only too willing to bend to big-money attacks on regulatory agencies. In January, President Obama grabbed headlines with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal promising to reduce regulatory burdens on business. He followed up with an Executive Order calling on federal agencies to make sure that future regulations impose the least possible burden and to review existing regulations with an eye to weeding out those that are “outmoded, ineffective, insufficient, or excessively burdensome.” The White House might as well have put up a sign on the door reading “Bring us your complaints about excessive regulation.”

That seems to be exactly what happened in this case. Environment and Energy News has posted a letter (subscription required) from West Virginia Democratic Congressman Nick Rahall to OIRA Administrator Sunstein asking that OIRA review the guidance to see if it should be issued as a rule and if EPA jumped through the right procedural hoops. The letter is dated March 29, 2011, just days before EPA announced that OMB will review its guidance. It refers to an earlier meeting between Rahall and Sunstein, so the response may not have been quite as instantaneous as that timeline makes it appear.

So we see EPA postponing guidelines that merely explain how coal companies are supposed to comply with existing rules on mountain top removal. Or the EPA delays likely until 2013 new rules it promised to control coal ash dumps, after the disastrous spill in Tennessee, and on and on. In essence, the White House has ordered Cass Sunstein to use a political calculator instead of a real one to help Obama’s reelection.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

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