Scott Pruitt is not a fan of the US Environmental Protection Agency in its current form (he has sued the agency 13 times as Oklahoma’s attorney general). But Pruitt is especially not a fan of the EPA’s policies to reduce air toxics and smog from power plants; he has sued the agency multiple times in an effort to overturn pollution-limiting regulations. So it can be considered an educated guess that as the head of the EPA, he would exercise his power to finally do just that.
Pruitt has sued the EPA to end the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which places limits on the amount of mercury, cyanide, acid gas, and other toxic chemicals that power plants routinely emit. He has also taken the agency to court over the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which curbs power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, two chemicals that form smog. Both are notorious contributors to asthma, among a host of other ailments. As the Intercept reported, Pruitt filed that suit alongside Murray Energy, Peabody Energy, and Southern Power Company, all of whom donated to Pruitt and his political action committee.
The thing is, when the EPA decides to write rules like these, they always have to quantify what exactly is at stake, to justify the cost of implementation to both government and industry. For example, when assessing the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, the EPA found that it would prevent 11,000 premature deaths per year. The rule would also prevent 130,000 cases of asthma symptoms in children, and 4,700 heart attacks in adults.
When it comes to the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, the EPA’s assessment was even more striking: Curbing just sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides would prevent between 13,000 and 34,000 premature deaths per year, and more than a half-million cases of childhood asthma symptoms.
Saying air pollution is connected to early death is not controversial; the fact is a matter of mainstream scientific knowledge. For example, the World Health Organization linked air pollution to 7 million premature deaths in 2012 alone, which amounts to one in every eight people who died that year. And even before it brings about people’s early demise, air pollution is a massive drain on public health—studies have emerged linking chronic air pollution exposure to the premature aging of the brain, cognitive delay in children, increased incidence of suicide, autism risk, early birth and low birth weight.
As EPA chief, Pruitt could not just kill the EPA’s air pollution rules with a waive of a pen. The Mercury and Air Toxics and the Cross-State Air Pollution rules have both been in effect since 2011, so in many cases power plants are already in compliance or in the process of getting there. Plus, to legally change a rule that has already gone through the lengthy notice-and-comment period, the Trump Administration would have to propose a new rule and go through the notice-and-comment period—which can last upwards of 60 days—again. Then the agency would need to respond to and consider all those public comments, another long process.
Plus, they would need to be prepared to defend the new rule in court. It’s very hard to defend a new rule when the one it’s meant to replace is backed up by rigorous scientific evidence, or if the industry is already relying on it, Jody Freeman, a Harvard law school professor and former climate adviser to Barack Obama, told Vox. “The courts will also invalidate a rule change that, in the substance of it, looks arbitrary to them.”
In other words, Pruitt would have a rough go at it if he really tries to nix these rules. But that hasn’t stopped president-elect Trump from making claims that he would roll back the Clean Power Plan and “get rid of” the EPA “in almost every form,” so there’s really no telling what lengths the new administration would take to slash the agency’s rules.
Either way, air pollution is sure to be in the spotlight at Pruitt’s confirmation hearing, scheduled for 9:15am ET today (Jan. 18).