The EPA’s plan to revamp its decades-old practice of estimating costs and benefits from all environmental rules has taken a slight turn with its decision to immediately focus on air pollution rules, according to the agency’s regulatory agenda released May 22.

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to propose to revise the way it estimates costs and benefits for Clean Air Act regulations (RIN:2060-AU51) by December 2019.

The EPA said it’s the first time it is publishing plans about this rule. It marks a change from the agency’s year-ago plan, when it sought comment on how to improve the way it estimated costs and benefits from all environmental regulations. At the time, the plan was to have a proposal out this month.

The EPA in its current agenda did not mention revising the same analysis for other regulations, beyond air pollution. But on May 21, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler outlined suggestions for improving the consistency of the cost-benefit process across all environmental rules.

“The agency underestimated costs, overestimated benefits or evaluated benefits and costs inconsistently,” Wheeler said on May 22, adding that the regulatory agenda was meant to protect air, water, and land while “alleviating unnecessary regulatory burdens.”

Manufacturers Welcome Move

Critics say Wheeler’s push, and its emphasis on air rules in particular, builds on other efforts by the EPA under the Trump administration to discount the health benefits of environmental regulations—particularly mercury standards at coal-fired power plants—and limit what scientific research can be used to justify them.

“That’s because benefit-cost analysis shows the Clean Air Act overwhelmingly delivers the largest source of monetized benefits by any federal environmental statute,” John Walke, director of the clean air, climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Bloomberg Environment. “This EPA’s top priority is strangling the Clean Air Act.”

Because the changes to the cost-benefit analysis would take the form of federal rulemaking that could be finished during President Donald Trump’s first term, the changes could bind future administrations until they could be rewritten.

The nation’s manufacturing industries welcomed EPA’s move in “reforming” the cost-benefit analysis, and taking on the air regulations first.

“From our perspective, we have had the most problems with the cost-benefit procedure in the air space,” Ross Eisenberg, National Association of Manufacturers’ energy and resources vice president, told Bloomberg Environment.

Eisenberg said the Obama EPA “drastically understated” the costs associated with the 2015 ozone standard. In the most to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant for the first time, it also overstated the benefits due to particle pollution captured in the 2012 mercury standards for power plants, and failed to account for the full range of Clean Air Act permitting costs.

Flagship Regulation

The EPA is proposing to undo the cost-benefit analysis that served as the basis of a 2012 rule that imposed limits on power plant emissions of mercury and other toxic air pollutants.

Specifically, the EPA is seeking to eliminate from its analysis the billions of dollars in indirect benefits that were gleaned when coal- and oil-fired utilities captured fine airborne particle pollution with technologies that were aimed at reducing mercury.

Environmental groups also oppose the EPA mercury proposal, saying the effort is an attempt to weaken public health protections. And the coal-fired electric utility industry sees the proposal as an attempt to kill the standards that they have already met after spending billions of dollars on controls.

At a May 21 hearing on the mercury rule, Janet McCabe—the former acting air chief in the Obama EPA who helped shape the 2012 toxic air pollution limits—accused the agency of helping the coal industry, which opposed the standards, at the expense of the rest of the country’s public health.

“This administration will do anything they can do to help the coal industry. This rule is on top of their list and even though the rule has been implemented, they want to use this rule as a flagship to inaugurate a new way of looking at benefits,” McCabe told the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations panel.