April 16, 2020

PennFuture Op-Ed in the Harrisburg Patriot-News

We need to respond to the coronavirus, but it’s a mistake to roll back regulations that protect the environment | Opinion

By Rob Altenburg

On March 26, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it is relaxing enforcement of environmental regulations and fines because of the coronavirus pandemic.

No one is questioning that changes will be necessary to respond to the current crisis, but it’s critical that our regulators act responsibly so as not to make the situation worse. Providing for blanket waivers of environmental requirements is nothing short of a license to pollute and puts our citizens at risk needlessly.

If this were an isolated lapse in judgement from the EPA, one might dismiss it as a well-intentioned overreaction to the COVID-19 crisis, but that isn’t the case. The Trump administration has made it clear that it intends to roll back as many environmental protections as possible, even when doing so directly contradicts the advice of EPA’s own Scientific Advisory Board. In fact, last year the New York Times reported that there were at least 95 separate rollbacks either completed or currently in process.

Just this week, the administration released new rules dismantling automotive emissions standards that the auto industry itself helped to create. Despite being called the “The Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule” this will result in more premature deaths, lower fuel economy, and more environmental pollution than the existing rules it replaces.

Worse yet, this is just one part of a coordinated attack on cleaner cars following a move last year to withdraw the “California Waiver.” That waiver was part of a longstanding agreement that allowed California to adopt cleaner vehicle standards than the federal government to which many states—including Pennsylvania—adopted to further reduce emissions.

The list goes on.

Last summer, the EPA said it would roll back Obama-era regulations that required oil and gas operators to monitor and repair methane leaks from pipelines, fracking wells and other infrastructure. Late last year, the administration announced it was repealing the Waters of the United States rule, also an Obama-era regulation, that protected about 60 percent of the country’s lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands from pollution.

Not surprisingly, standards that would reduce the carbon pollution that causes climate change have been a particular target for the administration. The 2015 Clean Power Plan would have led to net benefits of $25 to $45 billion per year by 2030 and helped avoid thousands of premature deaths, but it has been replaced by the administration's Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule. Despite the name, ACE will be far less cost effective, will keep our electric generation dirtier, and will result in more premature deaths in return for squeezing a little more life out of failing coal plants.

Now, the administration is telling corporate polluters that it will look the other way in the midst of a global public health pandemic that is compromising the respiratory systems of hundreds of thousands of Americans. That means the administration is making it easier for polluters to drastically worsen our air quality, again, at a time when polar opposite actions are necessary.

This couldn’t be more dangerous to the communities being heavily impacted by the virus as well as the Commonwealth’s overall wellbeing and economy.

That’s why PennFuture recently sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, urging the agency to keep in place critical environmental protections and asking for enforcement to continue during this national crisis. Specifically, we asked for the department to prioritize actions to address the most significant public health and environmental threats first. In particular, this includes protection of environmental justice communities that already face a disproportionate burden of environmental risks and may be least able to protect themselves during this crisis.

We also asked that, to the extent that accommodations must be made, DEP consider the compliance history of facilities to ensure that good actors get the help they need while minimizing the risk of unscrupulous companies taking advantage of the situation to cut corners, jeopardizing public health and safety in the process.

While DEP has indicated it will continue to enforce our laws, regulations, and permit requirements, they are going to face challenges. For that reason, we are calling on our good corporate and industrial neighbors to pledge to protect the health of our citizens and our natural resources by following state and federal environmental laws so we don’t burden the sick and vulnerable with more polluted air and water.

We also call on our elected officials to stand up to the voices of corporate greed that are ready and willing to sacrifice our health for their own benefit. The days where pollution was the cost of economic progress are long gone and we shouldn’t continue to pretend it is necessary.

We will need to invest heavily in economic recovery, but rather than further lining the pockets of the fossil fuel industry and other polluters, there is a better and greener path forward. Let’s prioritize investments in efficiency, clean energy jobs and clean technologies—industries that are already leading the nation in job creation. That will put us on the path to not only recover from the COVID-19 crisis, but also to face the climate crisis.

Rob Altenburg is Director of PennFuture Energy Center.