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EPA science panel questions Trump energy rule rollbacks


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EPA science panel questions Trump energy rule rollbacks

A federal advisory panel that provides scientific guidance to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency raised concerns with some of the Trump administration's efforts to undo or relax environmental regulations affecting the energy sector.

The concerns were laid out in several draft reports that the EPA's Science Advisory Board, or SAB, made public ahead of a Jan. 17 meeting on the documents. The draft reports, which were posted Dec. 31, 2019, pertain to the scientific and technical basis for four of the Trump EPA's marquee regulatory reforms.

One of the draft reports involves the EPA's proposed Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient, or SAFE, Vehicles rule, which would relax corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards for passenger cars and light-duty trucks for model years 2021-2026.

In its review of the proposal, the SAB observed "significant weaknesses in the scientific analysis of the proposed rule." Two of the new modules recently added to the agency's CAFE model "lead to implausible results," predicting that an increase in vehicle prices from the tougher Obama-era rules would actually cause the U.S. car fleet to grow substantially "when it would usually be expected to shrink," the draft report said.

Those modeling flaws, along with other, smaller issues, "are of sufficient magnitude that the estimated net benefits of the proposed revision may be substantially overstated," the draft report said. It said the weaknesses in the Trump EPA's analysis "are sufficiently important that they could reverse the rankings of the policies being considered."

"In other words, the augural [Obama] standards might provide a better outcome for society than the proposed revision," the draft report stated.

The SAB made several recommendations for improving the EPA's regulatory analysis of the SAFE Vehicles rule, including changes to the sales and scrappage models and the modeling of vehicle miles traveled. But it noted that other proposed changes to the EPA's analysis could provide less support for the Obama-era standards and that "a revised analysis would help determine the correct ranking of the alternative policies."

Other rules scrutinized by the SAB

The board, whose chair Michael Honeycutt was appointed by President Donald Trump, also pointed out perceived flaws with the way the EPA proposed to define federally protected waters under the Clean Water Act. The Trump administration's proposed definition of waters of the United States "decreases protection for our nation's waters and does not support the objective of restoring and maintaining 'the chemical, physical and biological integrity' of these waters," the SAB said.

In particular, the board said the proposed rule did not fully incorporate a 2015 report from the EPA emphasizing that the functional connectivity of waters is more than a matter of surface geography and that functional relationships among water bodies must be the basis for determining adjacency.

"The departure of the proposed rule from EPA recognized science threatens to weaken protection of the nation's waters by disregarding the established connectivity of ground waters and by failing to protect ephemeral streams and wetlands which connect to navigable waters below the surface," the board's draft report said. "These changes are proposed without a fully supportable scientific basis, while potentially introducing substantial new risks to human and environmental health."

In another draft report posted at the end of 2019, the board criticized the scientific and technical basis of a proposed EPA rule aimed at strengthening the transparency of regulatory science.

The rule would require the EPA to clearly identify and make publicly available all studies or science the agency relies upon for significant regulatory actions. The board said that requirement "could be cumbersome and impractical if some studies were used in a weight of evidence consideration but not used to determine specific regulatory endpoints."

The proposal indicated that the EPA could make case-by-case exceptions to making all data available to the public. But the SAB said those exceptions "may exacerbate concerns about inappropriate exclusion of scientifically important studies" and urged the EPA to form specific criteria for making those exceptions.

Furthermore, the board raised concerns that some datasets from universities and private societies could be "excluded entirely from the regulatory process" unless the EPA addressed privacy and confidentiality concerns in its proposal.

The board's fourth draft report posted in December 2019 pertained to the EPA's review of the Obama administration's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, rule, which regulates air toxins from oil- and coal-fired power plants. In December 2018, the EPA proposed to revoke the legal basis for the MATS rule, saying the regulation was not "appropriate and necessary" after removing consideration of the rule's co-benefits, including a reduction in fine particulate matter.

In its review of the proposal, the SAB noted what it said were "a number of uncertainties in EPA's analysis." Among other things, the board said the EPA's residual risk assessment appeared to only include fish consumed from small- to mid-sized lakes by fishermen and their families, which only make up a small fraction of fish consumed in the U.S. The board also said the EPA's "fisheries model is poor in that the size of the fish is not a variable."

The draft report recommended that the EPA perform a new net effects risk assessment that follows a model used by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, include additional hazardous air pollutants in its evaluation, and adopt an "alternative mechanistic approach" that relies on toxic units to assess risks to aquatic, benthic and soil biota.

EPA's response

In an emailed statement, an EPA spokesperson said the agency appreciated and respected the board's work and the draft reports "may potentially be revised by the SAB members as they strive for a consensus on these documents." Those revisions and final reports will be developed soon after the Jan. 17 public meeting, the spokesperson said.

The agency also defended the rulemakings covered in the SAB draft reports. The EPA's transparency rule will require agency science to "withstand skepticism and peer review," the spokesperson said. Regarding federally protected waters, she said the new WOTUS definition "may be informed by science, but science cannot dictate where to draw the line between federal and state or tribal waters, as those are legal distinctions established within the overall framework and construct of the Clean Water Act."

Turning to the MATS rule, she emphasized that the EPA is not proposing to change the underlying standards governing air toxics from power plants and that emissions would not go up under the Trump administration's proposal compared with the existing rule. She lastly stated that the Trump administration is working to finalize the new CAFE standards, which will "benefit all Americans by improving the U.S. fleet's fuel economy, reducing air pollution, and making new vehicles more affordable for all Americans."