Earlier this month, US Environmental Protection Administration administrator Scott Pruitt appeared on Fox News Sunday and boasted that his agency has achieved “a 65% reduction in those key air pollutants—SOx [sulphur oxides] and NOx [nitrogen oxides] and particulate matter and ozone—while at the same time growing our economy.” Oddly—and unlike each of his predecessors—Pruitt wasn’t making these claims to support continuing the E.P.A.’s work. He went on to defend massive cuts in the agency’s budget.
The E.P.A.’s budget today is about $8.14 billion, which is already some 20% below the Obama era’s 2010 budget. That translates to around $25 per person annually. Federal personal tax revenues are about $5,000 per person; therefore, the E.P.A. is funded with about 0.5% of a per capita tax bill.
Pruitt supports slashing the E.P.A. budget by more than 30% to a level closer to that which the agency received in the late 1970s. On a per capita basis, the proposed E.P.A. funding would constitute just 0.3% of the average tax bill. While everyone wants to pay less in taxes, the reductions supported by Pruitt could have many costly impacts on public health, the environment and even the competitiveness and stability of American businesses.
For one, Mr. Pruitt ignores the fact that the benefits of the E.P.A.’s rules to reduce harmful air pollution significantly exceed their costs. By 2020, for example, the benefits of enforcing the 1990 Clean Air Act will likely exceed costs by a factor of 30 to 1. This includes cleaner, healthier air, which is expected to prevent 230,000 early deaths annually in 2020. Over 2.4 million asthma sufferers will be able to breathe more easily, and 5.4 million lost school days and 17 million lost workdays will be avoided, each annually in 2020. Without adequate funding for critical E.P.A. programs like the clean air programs, the data will tell another story: one of much higher costs for the nation, both in human and economic terms.
A slashed E.P.A. budget will also have a deleterious impact on the research, development and enforcement of programs that save American lives every day.
For example, EPA funded research in the 90’s established that diesel exhaust was killing people through respiratory illness and heart problems. Starting in 2000, the E.P.A. took regulatory actions to reduce harmful diesel exhaust from trucks, school buses and other equipment by 95%. The poisonous smoke trailing from trucks and buses is a thing of the past, saving 40,000 lives each year and preventing millions of respiratory illnesses linked to diesel exhaust.
Americans’ need for the E.P.A. is no less today than it was when the agency was created 47 years ago. The Volkswagen diesel scandal in 2015 is a perfect example of what the E.P.A. does today to hold industry accountable. Harmful emissions from Volkswagen diesel vehicles were up to 35 times higher than the levels mandated by the E.P.A. Following pressure from the E.P.A. and California Air Resources Board, Volkswagen publicly admitted that for seven years it had equipped 500,000 diesel cars in the United States with “defeat devices” — software that cheated on federal and state emissions tests. Volkswagen subsequently announced that 11 million diesel cars worldwide have the same “defeat device” software.
What’s more, the Volkswagen scandal was not the action of just one rogue company. In January 2017, the E.P.A. notified Fiat Chrysler of violations of emissions standards on more than 100,000 vehicles. Further testing in Europe has revealed that many others—including BMW, Citroen, Fiat, Mercedes-Benz, Opel, Renault and Suzuki—all grossly exceeded European Union air quality standards under real-world driving conditions. Leaving it up to the industry to police itself would be like leaving a bunch of toddlers in a room full of candy and asking them not to eat any of it.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the Trump administration’s enormous cuts to E.P.A funding could also disrupt the industries they are reputedly seeking to help. For example, the E.P.A. issues over 4,000 “Certificates of Conformity” annually for everything from cars to construction equipment. They also issue the fuel economy labels found on every new car. If these programs are slowed or shut down by the proposed budget cuts, companies selling such products will no longer legally be able to sell them in the United States.
The administration’s argument, echoed by Pruitt, is that rolling back regulations will provide relief to regulated industries. But Pruitt himself has already admitted E.P.A.’s successes, and those have occurred as U.S. economy has grown threefold since 1970. Meanwhile, the downsides to gutting the E.P.A.’s budget come at a tremendous cost. In the same interview on Fox News Sunday, Pruitt assured host Chris Wallace that the proposed massive budget cuts didn’t “mean that clean air and clear water is not going to be the focus in the future.”
The evidence suggests otherwise. Taking a hatchet to the EPA budget will transport America back to the 1970s, when smog obscured the skylines of American cities and people suffered increasingly from pollution-related illnesses. In the future, cleaning up the mess left behind by Mr. Pruitt will cost much more—in dollars as well in the health and well-being of Americans—than today’s counter-productive budget savings.
Margo Oge served as the director of the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality (OTAQ) from 1994 to 2012. She is also the author of the book, Driving the Future: Combating Climate Change with Cleaner, Smarter Cars. Drew Kodjak is the executive director of The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). ICCT’s research and testing exposed VW emissions cheating.