Bolton jug­gles mud­dled Syria with­drawal mess The sense and non­sense in the EPA’s mer­cury rule

Pawtucket Times - - BLACKSTONE VALLEY/NATION - By AARON BLAKE Bloomberg Opin­ion

It may wind up be­ing the most sig­nif­i­cant decision of Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency, and it’s a mud­dled mess.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion has been bob­bing and weav­ing on its Syria policy for two years. It bobbed again Thurs­day, com­menc­ing some sort of with­drawal just days after a top of­fi­cial sig­naled things might be on hold.

Late last month, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump an­nounced a to­tal and im­me­di­ate with­drawal of U.S. troops from Syria, lead­ing to two high-pro­file res­ig­na­tions, in­clud­ing De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis. But then the ad­min­is­tra­tion seemed to backpedal a bit. The time­line was slowly drawn out and con­di­tions were at­tached. It all cul­mi­nated this week­end in national se­cu­rity ad­viser John Bolton declar­ing that the with­drawal would be con­di­tioned on cer­tain “ob­jec­tives” be­ing met: the com­plete defeat of the Is­lamic State, also known as ISIS, and an agree­ment by Tur­key not to tar­get the U.S.’s Syr­ian Kur­dish al­lies once the U.S. was gone.

“We’re go­ing to be dis­cussing the pres­i­dent’s decision to with­draw, but to do so from north­east Syria in a way that makes sure that ISIS is de­feated and to make sure that the de­fense of Is­rael and our other friends in the re­gion is ab­so­lutely as­sured, and to take care of those who have fought with us against ISIS and other ter­ror­ist groups,” Bolton said Sun­day in Jerusalem.

Bolton added: “There are ob­jec­tives that we want to ac­com­plish that con­di­tion the with­drawal. The timetable flows from the policy de­ci­sions that we need to im­ple­ment.”

Those con­di­tions have not been met – or re­ally any­thing close to it. Tur­key,

When­ever the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­poses to elim­i­nate a reg­u­la­tion, many peo­ple are tempted to give it a stand­ing ova­tion. Many oth­ers are tempted to boo and hiss. Some­times it’s right to do one or the other. But with re­spect to the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency’s re­cent decision to re­think its con­tro­ver­sial mer­cury reg­u­la­tion – well, it’s com­pli­cated and un­usu­ally in­ter­est­ing.

The story be­gins in 2012, when the EPA fi­nal­ized that reg­u­la­tion un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. (I was ad­min­is­tra­tor of the White House Of­fice of In­for­ma­tion and Reg­u­la­tory Af­fairs at the time, and in­volved in the dis­cus­sions that led to the fi­nal rule.) The EPA’s anal­y­sis pro­ceeded in two stages.

In the first stage, it con­cluded that reg­u­lat­ing mer­cury was, in the words of the Clean Air Act, “ap­pro­pri­ate and nec­es­sary” in light of mer­cury’s ad­verse ef­fects, es­pe­cially on chil­dren (who, among other things, lose IQ points as a re­sult of ex­po­sure to mer­cury in fish, in­gested by their moth­ers). In the second stage, it con­cluded that its fi­nal rule would have ben­e­fits far in ex­cess of costs.

To be sure, com­pli­ance with the rule would be un­usu­ally ex­pen­sive, with an­nual costs of $9.6 bil­lion. But it would which helped per­suade Trump to with­draw in the first place, has roundly re­jected the U.S. con­di­tion that it leave the Kurds, whom it re­gards as ter­ror­ists, alone.

Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan de­clined to even meet with Bolton dur­ing his visit to the re­gion and called Bolton’s com­ments “a se­ri­ous mis­take.”

“The mes­sage that Bolton gave in Is­rael is un­ac­cept­able,” Er­do­gan said in a tele­vised ad­dress to his po­lit­i­cal party Tuesday. “It is not pos­si­ble for us to swal­low.”

It’s also not clear the Is­lamic State is close to han­dled. As my col­league Liz Sly re­ported last month,” Signs that the Is­lamic State is start­ing to re­group and rum­blings of dis­con­tent within the Arab com­mu­nity point to the threat of an in­sur­gency.”

Re­port­ing in­di­cates that, de­spite Bolton’s com­ments, the Pen­tagon has not re­ceived any up­dates on its with­drawal plans from last month and is mov­ing for­ward with Trump’s plan. One anony­mous de­fense of­fi­cial told the Wall Street Jour­nal: “Noth­ing has changed. We don’t take orders from Bolton.”

It’s not im­pos­si­ble to square what Bolton said with a par­tial with­drawal. His com­ments never ac­tu­ally said there would be no with­drawal of troops with­out the con­di­tions be­ing met. Per­haps he was sim­ply say­ing the United States wouldn’t com­pletely with­draw un­til those con­di­tions were met. Per­haps the speed of the with­drawal is what is con­tin­gent here.

National Se­cu­rity Council spokesman Gar­rett Mar­quis said that Bolton joined with the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dun­ford and Syria en­voy Am­bas­sador James Jef­frey in Tur- also pre­vent up to 11,000 deaths an­nu­ally. In mon­e­tary terms, its ben­e­fits would be $37 bil­lion or more a year – far in ex­cess of the $9.6 bil­lion an­nual ex­pen­di­ture.

Im­por­tantly, the EPA em­pha­sized that by them­selves, the quan­tifi­able ben­e­fits of re­duc­ing mer­cury emis­sions would be mod­est ($4 mil­lion to $6 mil­lion). The over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of the quan­tifi­able pub­lic health ben­e­fits, in­clud­ing those 11,000 pre­vented deaths, would not in­volve mer­cury at all; they would be “co-ben­e­fits.” The tech­nolo­gies used to re­duce mer­cury would si­mul­ta­ne­ously re­duce emis­sions of par­tic­u­late mat­ter, an­other air pol­lu­tant, which pro­duces se­ri­ous pub­lic health prob­lems.

States and pri­vate com­pa­nies im­me­di­ately chal­lenged the EPA’s reg­u­la­tion in fed­eral court. The Supreme Court sided with them on an im­por­tant but rel­a­tively nar­row ground: When the EPA de­cided, at the first stage, that it was “ap­pro­pri­ate and nec­es­sary” to reg­u­late mer­cury, it looked at ben­e­fits only and failed to con­sider costs, or to un­der­take any kind of bal­anc­ing. The jus­tices sent the reg­u­la­tion back to the EPA to do ex­actly that.

Un­der Obama in 2016, the EPA re­sponded with two ar­gu­ments. First, it said that the pro­vi­sions of the Clean Air Act that gov­ern haz­ardous air pol- key to con­vey “the Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s five co­or­di­nated prin­ci­ples for im­ple­ment­ing the Pres­i­dent’s guid­ance on with­drawal.” Among them, ac­cord­ing to a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, were that the with­drawal would hap­pen “in a de­lib­er­ate, or­derly and strong man­ner” and that “the U.S. will defeat the re­main­ing ISIS caliphate on the way out.” That sug­gests Bolton’s con­di­tions could still be in-play, even with a with­drawal in progress.

But if you’re Tur­key, and you see the United States is already pulling out – at least to some ex­tent – you have to won­der how iron­clad Bolton’s de­mands were. We’ll see if the full with­drawal was truly con­di­tional on Tur­key ac­qui­esc­ing, be­cause that doesn’t ap­pear likely to hap­pen.

And ei­ther way, there is just so much con­fu­sion here, com­pletely of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s own mak­ing. As The Washington Post noted Thurs­day night, there’s no real clar­ity on whether Bolton’s con­di­tions are op­er­a­tive. Even the five prin­ci­ples laid out in Tur­key were more as­pi­ra­tions than de­mands. In­stead of mak­ing sure the safety of the Kurds was “ab­so­lutely as­sured,” as Bolton re­quired, they say, “The U.S. wants a ne­go­ti­ated solution to Turk­ish se­cu­rity con­cerns,” and “The United States op­poses any mis­treat­ment of opposition forces who fought with the U.S. against ISIS.”

Trump has made a point to say that he doesn’t like tele­graph­ing mil­i­tary moves, which is un­der­stand­able from a strate­gic stand­point. But in this case, he tele­graphed the whole thing up­front. And if you’re go­ing to at­tach con­di­tions to some­thing, you need to be abun­dantly clear about them. That has sim­ply not been the case here, and we seem to get a dif­fer­ent in­di­ca­tion about this with­drawal ev­ery week or so. lu­tants, such as mer­cury, are pri­mar­ily con­cerned with pub­lic health, not cost. For that rea­son, the EPA said that it would go for­ward with its reg­u­la­tion even if the quan­tifi­able health ben­e­fits were low and the mon­e­tary costs were very high.

Second, the EPA said that even it was re­quired to bal­ance ben­e­fits and costs, it would none­the­less go for­ward. Be­cause of the sheer mag­ni­tude of the co-ben­e­fits, it was “ap­pro­pri­ate and nec­es­sary” to reg­u­late mer­cury, be­cause the to­tal mon­e­tized ben­e­fits were so much higher than the to­tal mon­e­tized costs.

Last month, the EPA pro­posed to re­ject both of the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion’s con­clu­sions, and sought pub­lic com­ments on a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent ap­proach.

First, it de­nied that it would “ap­pro­pri­ate and nec­es­sary” to list a pol­lu­tant if the costs were much higher than the ben­e­fits. Second, it an­nounced that it would not con­sider co-ben­e­fits at all. It em­pha­sized that sep­a­rate pro­vi­sions of the Clean Air Act are specif­i­cally de­signed to con­trol par­tic­u­late mat­ter.

But the EPA did not pro­pose to elim­i­nate its mer­cury reg­u­la­tion. A fed­eral court has ruled that in order to do that, the EPA must go through a spe­cific process. With the court’s rul­ing in mind, the EPA said that it did not in­tend to take its reg­u­la­tion off the books.

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