The EPA Is Seeking to Change the Definition of “Dangerous” Soot


For decades, environmentalists have fought the energy industry over one particular thing: soot.

They successfully lobbied to enact stringent regulations against fine ash particulate, which have been a part of broader regulations seeking to restrain ash emissions from coal plants.

Now, the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is seeking to weaken these regulations by changing the legal definition of soot.

The change involves one particular part of the soot rule which stipulates that there is no acceptable level of fine particulate exposure to the public. The EPA, in a plan first floated last fall but renewed this year, is seeking to create a threshold of acceptable ash particulate exposure – a move that will rankle environmentalists and potentially invoke legal action.

One main motivation: to overturn the Clean Power Plan enacted by the Obama administration that is widely opposed by the energy industry. By changing the soot rule, the Trump administration will deal a severe blow to the CPP, which was enacted in part because the Obama team argued that the benefits of the plan outweighed the costs of its implementation.

With the new rule, however, that cost-benefit analysis will tilt the other way, thereby removing the foundation for one of the plan’s chief regulations.

Under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), the adequate margin of safety for particle pollutants is 12  micrograms per cubic meter. The EPA will argue that there aren’t any additional health benefits to be had to lower the threshold any further, which is what the CPP attempts to do.

It is unclear what will happen to the EPA’s proposal to repeal the CPP, and, by association, the soot rule. Attempts to repeal the plan will undoubtedly run into legal challenges that could, in the right set of circumstances, prolong the attempt and possibly drag it out until after the 2018 midterms – and, potentially, past the 2020 elections when Democrats could take control of Congress and the White House.

It remains to be seen if the soot rule will be changed, or if the EPA will succeed in its efforts. Energy officials widely applaud the agency’s efforts over the last year, insisting that the EPA under President Obama double-counted health benefits, thus skewing the cost-benefit analysis in favor of the CPP.

If the EPA succeeds in its current attempt, regulations for the energy industry will almost certainly be relaxed.

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