Opinion

To Celebrate the EPA’s 50th Birthday, Re-Elevate Science

It’s not an especially happy 50th birthday for the Environmental Protection Agency. Four years of Trump administration policies have weakened EPA rules that protect Americans’ health and our environment. And in a destructive pattern that has echoed throughout the federal government, subject-matter expertise and technical know-how have been devalued, while political priorities have held sway.

The EPA, signed into being by a Republican president at a time when rivers were so dirty they sometimes caught on fire, has saved lives by administering cornerstone environmental protections such as the Clean Air Act. Based on President-elect Joe Biden’s choices for the EPA transition team, we are hopeful that the EPA will soon return to robust, science-informed environmental policymaking.

But in order to point the EPA in the right direction for its next 50 years, it’s important to understand the scope of the destruction done over the last four. For decades, independent scientists advised EPA. In doing so, they helped to protect the rulemaking process from undue political influence by whichever party held the White House. The Trump administration removed these protections.

We’ve witnessed the damage as former members of the EPA’s Environmental Economics Advisory Committee. For 25 years, the EEAC provided nonpartisan guidance on applying the best current economic science to evaluating data and formulating sensible and effective policies. The committee, set up during George H.W. Bush’s administration, provided a channel for environmental economists outside of EPA to advise Democratic and Republican EPA administrators The EEAC did not simply rubber-stamp EPA’s desired outcomes but rather critically evaluated EPA’s methods to ensure they reflected sound economic science.

Then, one day in 2018, we got letters from the EPA telling us the EEAC was retired. That’s why we established the “External” Environmental Economics Advisory Committee, an independent organization dedicated to providing up-to-date, nonpartisan advice on economic aspects of EPA policymaking. Although EPA employs many talented economists, their recommendations can be overridden by political appointees. We believe that whether there’s an official EPA EEAC or not, there’s tremendous value in taking a critical look at environmental policy through an economic lens.

Our first report looked at the EPA’s decision to undermine protection from power plant mercury emissions. We found that the benefit-cost analysis on which the decision rested was clearly flawed, and it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in economics to see why. The EPA disregarded tens of billions of dollars’ worth of health benefits to the American people from reductions in harmful particulate matter, air pollution that disproportionately impacts communities of color. The recent decision to repeal and replace the Clean Water Rule, which removes protection from half the nation’s wetlands and 18 percent of its streams, also rests on dubious methods, as shown in an upcoming E-EEAC report.

In today’s wildly accelerated news cycle, the details of governing well don’t tend to get the big headlines. But the COVID-19 crisis has shown us what happens when effective policies based on the best available research are derided and downplayed. We’ve seen the damage caused when politics take precedence over research, science, and expertise.

The damage caused by ignoring science, which has weakened environmental regulations, may take longer to become evident, but it is no less real. Americans deserve clean air, clean water and a healthy environment, for ourselves and for generations to come. Re-elevating the role of science within the EPA would be the best birthday gift the agency could receive today.

 

JR DeShazo, Ph.D., and Mary Evans, Ph.D., are co-chairs of the External Environmental Economics Advisory Committee. DeShazo is director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, a research center uniting UCLA scholars with civic leaders to solve environmental challenges.  Evans is Jerrine and Thomas Mitchell ’66 Professor of Environmental Economics and George R. Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College. 

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