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An Environment of Deception

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I had a math teacher tell me when I was in high school that two data points are a hint, and three are a trend. Three years into the current administration, the trend in environmental regulation is sledgehammer clear: this administration is the worst steward of the environment ever. So bad is the record, so long the list of environmental depredations, that it is difficult to pick the worst. The administration has gutted rules limiting deadly air pollution; undone protections against the filth of factory farms; proposed allowing industry to buy and sell permits to emit mercury, a known poison; slashed protections for the most pristine of our publicly owned forests; sought to permit oil-drilling in the crown jewel of the American wildlife refuge system; and more. And the administration has done it all while proclaiming a commitment to environmental values.

That is why even those who have other policy priorities, or for that matter, those who agree with the administration’s looting of the nation’s natural bounty and endangering of public health, should be concerned about the way these changes have come about. The deception that has surrounded the administration’s environmental record threatens more than human health and the environment; it threatens democracy itself.

When, for example, the administration proposed to let power companies dump more harmful pollution into the air, it didn’t, in good democratic fashion, concede that more air pollution was on its way and then make an argument about why it was important to help industry. Instead, it claimed – based, as the General Accounting Office found in a report on the subject, on completely anecdotal evidence from the very firms that would benefit from a rollback – that relaxing regulation would actually be good for the environment. The administration repeated the same flimsy claim in explaining why it did not need to do a cost-benefit analysis of its action. In the last three years, such analysis has stopped much positive regulation in its tracks, but it is apparently unnecessary to crunch the numbers when regulation is being pulled back. Here, too, the administration didn’t admit it hates regulation, and so applies stricter standards to it than to deregulation. Instead, it pretends to believe in "rigorous analysis," but then applies it only to regulations it thinks will be inconvenient to industry.

The administration has become expert in the vocabulary of deception. It unfailingly hews to the line pollster Frank Luntz crafted in a now infamous memo advising conservatives on how to talk about the environment. Observing that voters care about the environment, Luntz cautioned never to express hostility to environmental protection, but instead, to speak in vague, soothing language. So we hear about "sound science," "balance," and "common sense," while all the while the environment is being trashed. How proud Mr. Luntz must be to see that the administration has taken his advice, doubled and redoubled it. Damaging programs are given a happy face with monikers like "Clear Skies," "Healthy Forests," and "Information Quality."

Sometimes the White House buries politically disastrous policies when the media heat gets fierce, but then quietly exhumes, props up and reinstates them later. Witness the reincarnation of the senior death discount, which valued seniors' lives for regulatory purposes at a lower monetary value than their children's, now hiding behind the phrase, "life-years saved." When the administration recently proposed allowing firms to buy and sell permits to emit mercury, for example, it relied on an economic analysis that expressly assumes that the number of life – years a person has left to live is relevant to deciding whether to protect her from deadly air pollution. When the senior death discount got the administration into such political trouble last spring, it vowed not to use the discount again. But it’s back, cloaked in different language and buried in thousands of pages of bureaucratic gibberish.

The administration clearly believes it can have it both ways: damage the environment, perhaps irremediably, and go on talking as though it's protecting it. But the State of the Union address may have marked the beginning of a new approach: after a particularly active year undoing environmental protections, the environment didn't even get a mention. The silent treatment would be an improvement of sorts, sparing us the indignity of deception. But for a public that expects clean air, clean water, and a healthy future for their children, the administration’s actions will speak louder than words.

Lisa Heinzerling is vice president of the Center for Progressive Regulation, professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center and an adjunct scholar with the Center for American Progress. With fellow CPR scholar Frank Ackerman, she is the author of Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing. Read the book's first chapter here.

To read Lisa Heinzerling's recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, click here.

To hear an audio clip of today's cost-benefit analysis critique by Lisa Heinzerling and Frank Ackerman, click here.

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