President Donald Trump is trying to roll back another set of key environmental regulations - but don't roll your eyes or wring your hands quite yet.

Matthew McCandless
Matthew McCandless
While this most recent episode is unnerving, its details reveal far more about the nature of environmental protection and the need for a comprehensive understanding of regulatory mechanisms.

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The issue this time is mercury. A common byproduct of power-plant activities and industrial mining processes, when ingested by humans, most commonly through the fish we eat, mercury poisoning can lead to a whole host of medical conditions that range from hair loss, muscle weakness/paralysis, organ damage, loss of senses, depression, and even death. They are known collectively as Minamata disease.

The need for regulation is therefore evident, and after years of wrangling, in 2011, the administration of President Barack Obama got on board and decided to deem it "appropriate and necessary" for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate mercury emissions. A series of thresholds and rules was introduced.

One other critical detail, however, was the administration's determination that when calculating the benefits of new mercury-emissions regulations, "co-benefits" also be counted. Put simply, co-benefits are the ancillary effects of a set of regulations or practices that are also beneficial to the original cause: in this case, protecting public health.

For example, the direct human health benefits of mercury-emission reductions were quantified at $6 million. However, when you include the corollary of reduced particulate matter (including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, reduced due to the installation of required mercury-control technology), the impact on human health in dollar figures shoots up to between $37 billion and $90 billion. This clearly justifies the $9.6 billion price tag for the industry to implement the changes.

However, if you strike through that "co-benefits" line in the calculations, it takes the benefits back down to $6 million, which makes it hard to make a case for that $9.6 billion cost to industry.

That is exactly what President Trump - along with the new head of the EPA, who happens to be a former coal lobbyist - is trying to do. By ignoring the impact of "co-benefits," his administration can define the existing mercury-emission regulations as no longer "appropriate and necessary," due to their diminished value.

Critics of the co-benefits approach deride it as "double counting." However, this is false logic. Let us be clear that co-benefits are additional to the impact of the original practices and confer extra benefits that would not have existed otherwise and are highly meaningful - as the jump from $6 million to $90 billion clearly evidences. And co-benefits exist everywhere, from EPA regulations on mercury to local efforts to bolster natural infrastructure.

Including co-benefits in the original EPA mercury calculations was a necessary step and should provide a blueprint for environmental policy. Had they been disregarded, it is estimated the U.S. would have experienced 11,000 more premature deaths, 4,700 more heart attacks and 130,000 more asthma attacks every year.

While at first glance it may seem like Trump is capriciously axing protections, what may actually result is a precedent being set whereby co-benefits are routinely omitted in subsequent calculations for new and existing environmental-protection regulations.

As the EPA considers public comments on the regulation changes this month, we cannot forget the critical role they play in safeguarding public health - as well as ensuring significant economic savings by taking action upfront.


Matthew McCandless is an expert in freshwater and wastewater issues as executive director of IISD Experimental Lakes Area, an environmental research station in northwestern Ontario, Canada. He wrote this for the News Tribune.