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Misleading New Republic Hit on EPA Nominee Scott Pruitt Demonstrates Ignorance of Subject Matter

In The New Republic today, Abby Rabinowitz predicts that “you can expect to hear a lot about mercury” during upcoming confirmation hearings for Donald Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. According to Rabinowitz, the mercury push is “part of a larger strategy by Senate Democrats to frame his nomination as the culmination of a cynical, years-long attack on science and reason whose purpose was to protect the interests of the fossil fuel industry—and his own.”

That’s a big charge to level! Surely the reporter didn’t merely regurgitate political talking points and instead vetted these accusations. After all, this is The New Republic, which at one point long ago was the in-flight magazine of Air Force One. But in the next paragraph, Rabinowitz demonstrates a profound ignorance of her subject:

Opposing mercury pollution is a no-brainer. Its harms include serious damage to the nervous, pulmonary, digestive, and immune systems and developmental brain defects. In 2011, after years of study, the EPA limited how much mercury oil-fired and coal-fired power plants can emit. The agency’s Mercury and Toxic Air Standards (MATS) will save thousands of lives and prevent an estimated 11,000 premature births a year. Great, right? Not according to Pruitt, who joined more than 20 states in suing to block the rule—an appeal that was ultimately declined by the Supreme Court last summer, leaving the rule in place.

Let’s unpack this paragraph. For starters, Rabinowitz claims that the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will “prevent an estimated 11,000 premature births a year.” She apparently didn’t read the source material for this claim, because the hyperlinked EPA fact sheet doesn’t mention “premature births.” Instead, the fact sheet claims that the rule would prevent “11,000 premature deaths.” I can understand why Rabinowitz would make this mistake, because the term “premature death” doesn’t make much sense. To wit, does it count if death is staved off for one second? So I suspect her mind automatically substituted “birth” for “death.”

Whatever it is, a “premature death” is a lot different from “saving lives,” as the latter phrase is understood in the real world. The upshot is that Rabinowitz is wrong twice—over when she claims that the rule would “save thousands of lives and prevent an estimated 11,000 premature births.” The latter assertion is plainly incorrect; the former is misleading.

But she’s even more wrong! In the first three sentences of the paragraph, Rabinowitz makes clear she’s talking about mercury. She says that “opposing mercury pollution is no-brainer,” and notes that mercury can damage “nervous, pulmonary, digestive, and immune systems and developmental brain defects.” She explains that the EPA promulgated the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards to “limit[] how much mercury oil-fired and coal-fired power plants can emit.” After these three sentences, all of which addressed mercury emissions, she botches a claim that the rule would prevent “11,000 premature deaths,” as described above.

Here’s the thing: These supposed “11,000 premature deaths” have nothing to do with mercury! Rather, they are putative “co-benefits” to the rule. As we explain here and here, it is grossly disingenuous for the EPA to trumpet these co-benefits, the existence of which are hotly contested. Suffice it to say for this post, mercury pollution has nothing to do with the alleged benefits of the rule. So Rabinowitz is wrong to connect one to the other.

Again, I can understand why she would make this mistake. “Mercury” is in the name of the rule, and the EPA’s ultra-well-funded public relations shop did its best to mislead the public, media, and policymakers into conflating speculative “co-benefits” with mercury pollution. The reason for all this misdirection is simple: Mercury from power plants did not endanger the public. As I recently noted in the course of debunking a different hatchet job on Pruitt:

EPA’s own analyses demonstrate that the emissions controlled by the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards pose no public hazard. According to EPA, the “benefits” of mercury reductions attendant to the rule were accruable to a supposed population of pregnant subsistence fisherwomen who eat more than 200 pounds of self-caught fish from only the top ten percent most polluted bodies of fresh inland water. Of course, no such woman exists. Indeed, EPA never identified such a voracious pregnant angler. Instead, they were modeled to exist.

The illusory benefits of the mercury rule get to the heart of Rabinowitz’s final big error in this short excerpt. In the last sentence of her woebegone paragraph, she notes that Pruitt “joined more than 20 states in suing to block the rule—an appeal that was ultimately declined by the Supreme Court last summer, leaving the rule in place.” Pruitt et al challenged the rule based on, inter alia, the claim that it was inappropriate for the EPA to refuse to consider the costs and benefits when it decided it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from power plants. For its part, the EPA didn’t want to perform such an analysis because doing so would draw attention to the fact that the mercury “benefits” of the mercury rule were nonexistent.

In a landmark 2015 ruling, the Supreme Court agreed, and ordered the EPA to undertake such a cost-benefit review. However, the Court kept the rule in place (in whas is called a “remand without vacatur”) while the agency did so. For her part, Rabinowitz provides a link to a write-up of a subsequent decision by the Supreme Court that denied a request by the states to pause the rule until their legal challenge (to the reasonableness of EPA’s cost-benefits review) runs its course. By omitting this highly relevant legal context, Rabinowitz misses the mark when she implies that the Supreme Court has vindicated the underlying science of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

All told, there were four big errors in the second paragraph of this hit job of Pruitt. I’d present the remaining errors, but you get the idea. This article is as mistaken or misleading as the previous attacks on Pruitt that I’ve blogged about of late. See here, here, here, and here.