By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposal to weaken a rule on coal plant pollution fails to consider billions of dollars in health benefits for Americans, economists from universities including Harvard and Yale said on Wednesday.

The six economists said the proposal to change the rule on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants ignores an Obama-era estimate that it would slash U.S. healthcare bills by $33 billion to $90 billion per year. The rule would save billions of dollars in healthcare costs because it requires plants to not only cut emissions of mercury, but also fine particulates that cause heart and lung illnesses, they said.

But the Trump administration, which has aimed to slash regulations governing fossil fuel production, last year proposed revising the mercury rule while scrapping its estimate of the cost savings from reductions in emissions of fine particulates. The administration is expected to throw out an Obama administration finding that it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate power plant emissions when it finalizes the proposal in coming weeks.

“Instead of weighing all the costs against all the benefits, the EPA is cherry picking,” said Yale University’s Matthew Kotchen, who released a report on the agency’s proposal with the other economists. “They pulled the biggest public health benefit off the scale.”

The U.S. coal industry has suffered under President Donald Trump despite his policy to ease regulations, due to a glut of cheap natural gas and falling costs for wind and solar power.

Several of the authors of the report, including Kotchen, were on the EPA’s Environmental Economics Advisory Committee that was part of the agency’s independent science advisory board for 25 years. The EPA’s Science Advisory Board unanimously dissolved the economics committee last year, after the Trump administration reduced the number of academic scientists on the board. The authors are now on the External Environmental Economics Advisory Committee, an independent group that says it provides nonpartisan advice on EPA programs.

The Obama administration had estimated that the mercury rule would cost utilities up to $9.6 billion annually but that would be outweighed by the cuts in healthcare bills.

The EPA under Trump estimated that the rule would only save up to $6 million annually because it removed the benefits from cuts in fine particulates.

An EPA spokeswoman said the agency was not doing away with the mercury rule, but “providing regulatory certainty by transparently and accurately taking account of both costs and benefits.”

The economists said that if the final rule scraps the Obama-era finding it will do away with its original justification, making it vulnerable to future lawsuits that could eventually kill the rule and make it harder to issue broad new emissions regulations.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Tom Brown)