Jiyoon Park

Two former members of an Environmental Protection Agency committee that guided the agency’s economic valuation of key environmental benefits penned a recent article condemning the agency’s abrupt shuttering of that committee.

In June 2018, the EPA shut down three of its advisory committees. The Environmental Economics Advisory Committee, one of the committees shut down, counseled the organization on issues ranging from economics to engineering. The Aug. 24 article, which ran in the journal Science and was written by Yale economics professor Matthew Kotchen and Virginia Tech economics professor Kevin Boyle, questioned the EPA’s commitment to thorough economic analysis. Furthermore, the article cites examples in which differing valuation of environmental costs and benefits could impact the protection of the natural environment.

“There’s likely to be less accountability and certainly less scientific credibility of the decision-making by closing down the economics advisory committee, and I would say that the same applies to the other two that were shut down,” said Boyle, who focuses on agricultural and applied economics.

The EPA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Both Boyle and Kotchen study the economic valuation of environmental resources. Although many of the benefits of natural resources, such as clean air and watersheds, are not traded on any market, they are still of value to society, Boyle said. Quantifying those benefits is fundamental to the EPA’s activities, he stressed.

Toward the end of the Obama administration, the committee had been focused on the economic valuation of human life in determining the damage of pollutants, Kotchen said. But since Trump’s inauguration, Kotchen said, the committee had not been called into action.

“Regardless of one’s political party affiliation, the fact that economic studies are coming to vastly different conclusions over the span of just two years suggests that having some external review of this is important for people to understand the credibility of the analysis the [EPA] is doing,” Kotchen said.

According to Boyle, the closing of the committee was justified in part by the claim that the Science Advisory Board, a larger body, could absorb most of the committee’s responsibilities. Still, he added, the board does not have many members with the economic expertise critical to the work of the EEAC. Usually the chair of the EEAC holds a seat on the Science Advisory Board, Kotchen said, but after the tenure of the previous chair ended, a new one was not appointed. As a result, there was limited communication between the two groups, including in the announcement of the EEAC’s dissolution.

Kotchen and Boyle agree that the closing of the committee will affect numerous EPA policies on clean air, water and energy. Kotchen pointed out that the EPA backed up its recent proposed rollbacks of policies concerning clean power plants and fuel-efficient cars with economic justifications, even though the committee could not weigh in.

“They’ve issued a proposal for changing the way they do economic analysis in general,” Kotchen said. “That would be a concern, not just on a case-by-case basis, but as to whether or not they want to change the way they measure environmental benefits to the detriment of environmental protection.”

Both Kotchen and Boyle agree that the existing committee could have been streamlined to cut costs and improve efficiency. However, they maintain that the committee played an important role in separating politics from evidence-based decision making, and that the EPA should “reconsider its decision to eliminate the EEAC.”

The Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970, under President Richard Nixon.

Maya Chandra | maya.chandra@yale.edu