You’ve Never Heard of Him, but He’s Remaking the Pollution Fight

This spring the Biden administration proposed or implemented eight major environmental regulations, including the nation’s toughest climate rule, rolling out what experts say are the most ambitious limits on polluting industries by the government in a single season.

Piloting all of that is a man most Americans have never heard of, running an agency that is even less well known.

But Richard Revesz has begun to change the fundamental math that underpins federal regulations designed to protect human health and the environment. And those calculations could affect American life and the economy for years to come.

Mr. Revesz, 65, heads the obscure but powerful White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which is effectively the gatekeeper and final word on all new federal regulations. It has been known as the place where new rules proposed by government agencies, particularly environmental standards, go to die — or at least to be weakened or delayed.

But Mr. Revesz, a climate law expert and former dean of the New York University School of Law, joined the Biden administration in January to flip the script. Each time a major regulatory proposal has landed on his desk, Mr. Revesz has used his authority to strengthen its legal analysis and make it more stringent.

What’s more, he has proposed a new method of calculating the cost of potential regulation that would bolster the legal and economic justifications for those rules to protect them against an expected onslaught of court fights.

With his halo of snowy curls and Spanish lilt — a vestige of his childhood in Argentina — Mr. Revesz is known as “Ricky” to everyone from his law students to his legal opponents. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan has called him “a legend.” John Podesta, a senior climate adviser to Mr. Biden who also served in top roles in the Obama and Clinton administrations, considers Mr. Revesz his hero.

Conservatives see Mr. Revesz differently.

“He is the professor of gobbledygook!” said Elizabeth Murrill, the solicitor general of Louisiana, who plans to join Republican attorneys general from other states to challenge Mr. Biden’s climate regulations. “He is creating these numbers to try to justify destroying the fossil fuel industry and the petrochemical industry, to justify bankrupting people and destroying their lives. And they say it’s all justified because of the future, because they say they’re saving the planet.”

The climate regulations proposed by the Biden administration, together with $370 billion in clean energy funds from the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, would catapult the United States to the forefront of the fight to constrain global warming.

While federal agencies write regulations, it’s the role of the White House regulatory chief to ensure that they are legally and economically sound.

But the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (known for short as OIRA, which rhymes with Elvira) has often concluded that proposed environmental, health and safety regulations would be too costly to business.

“In the past, OIRA has been the brake on regulations,” said Richard Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Harvard. “They’ve slowed things down and especially watered down environmental rules.”

That pattern had been largely true regardless of the party in charge. Cass Sunstein, a Harvard economist who led the regulatory office during the Obama administration, examined a proposal from the E.P.A. to reduce pollution linked to asthma and decided the costs to industry were too high, despite the projected health benefits. The rule was shelved, infuriating environmentalists.

But in April, Mr. Revesz proposed to change the way federal agencies tally and weigh the costs and benefits of proposed regulations relating to everything from climate change to consumer protections in ways to make them much more likely to see the light of day.

Until now, such analyses have been chiefly based on the current cost of a regulation to industry, compared against the benefits to society. Mr. Revesz’s alteration would emphasize how a regulation would benefit future generations.

That would have particular meaning when it comes to climate regulations, because scientists say the impact of greenhouse gases that are emitted now will be felt far into the future, in the form of rising seas, more devastating storms, extreme drought, wildfires and displacement.

“This is essentially saying that the federal government doesn’t just give weight to the costs on the economy this year or next year, while ignoring the benefits to our children, our grandchildren, their grandchildren,” said Robert Stavins, a professor of energy and economic development at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The change would affect the metric that the federal government uses to calculate the harm caused by one ton of planet-warming carbon dioxide pollution. In the Obama administration, White House economists calculated that number at roughly $50 a ton. In the Trump administration, they lowered it to less than $5 a ton. Applying Mr. Revesz’s formula shoots up the cost to nearly $200 a ton.

Plug that number into, say, the E.P.A.’s proposal to tighten tailpipe emissions — a regulation designed to ramp up sales of electric vehicles while ending the use of gasoline-powered cars — and the economic benefit could increase to more than $1 trillion, much greater than the estimated cost to industry.

“It’s a very powerful change,” Mr. Revesz said.

He also believes that the government ought to consider the impact of a proposed regulation on different segments of the population. Current methods weigh the impact of a proposed regulation on the population as a whole. But poor and minority communities face greater exposure to pollution, so they would reap greater benefits from limits on that pollution.

Mr. Stavins and some other economists say the approach taken by Mr. Revesz is the most accurate way to analyze the impact of climate rules. “That’s the right way to think about it and the right way to do it,” Mr. Stavins said.

Critics say the changes would result in greater government interference in American life and harm businesses by increasing costs in an economy that has been edging toward recession.

“If they make decisions based on this change, that will have huge impacts on all kinds of federal programs,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, a lawyer with Bracewell LLP, who represents fossil fuel companies and electric utilities. “It will certainly justify much more aggressive regulation, especially of greenhouse gas emissions, and that would almost certainly increase the cost of energy, which flows through to the cost of goods and services.”

Susan Dudley, who headed the regulatory office in the George W. Bush administration and now directs the Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University, said Mr. Revesz appears to be trying to achieve a progressive agenda.

“To me there is a danger there — the previous guidelines from Reagan, Clinton and Bush were all seen as neutral, objective and focused on efficiency,” she said. “I think it won’t survive a Republican administration.”

Mr. Revesz says he is simply modernizing a method of calculations that was last updated during the George W. Bush administration. In 2003, government economists estimated the impact of regulation on future generations by considering the average interest rate on government bonds over the prior 30 years. Mr. Revesz took the same steps to come up with his metric.

“If you do exactly the same arithmetic with exactly the same formula with the most recent 30 years,” the result places a higher dollar value on future lives, Mr. Revesz said at a recent discussion at George Washington University.

A future administration could change the calculations again. But if that happens, “it will be obvious that they acted politically and that they acted contrary to science, and economics,” he said.

Mr. Revesz’s proposed method of calculating costs and benefits is expected to be finalized by the fall and used to justify Mr. Biden’s climate regulations when they are implemented early next year.

Mr. Revesz first began to think of costs and benefits as a child growing up in Buenos Aires. His parents had fled to Argentina from Hungary and Romania during World War II; his grandparents and four of his six aunts were murdered at Auschwitz.

Argentina offered a short respite from mayhem; during the 1960s, a military dictatorship destabilized the country.

“I had to get up for school at 6:30, but we didn’t get any heat in our building until 8, and it was actually pretty cold in the winter,” he recalled in an interview. “So when my alarm went off, instead of getting up right away, I would turn on the radio, because if there was either a coup or an attempted coup or a general strike, there’ll be no school. And the probability of this happening was sufficiently high that it made sense to find out before I actually got out of bed into the cold.”

He came to the United States in 1975 at age 17, two weeks before starting at Princeton on a full scholarship. After graduating, Mr. Revesz earned a master’s degree in environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He became an American citizen during his second year at Yale Law School, where he was editor of the Yale Law Review. A clerkship for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall followed and in 1985, he began teaching at the New York University School of Law, where he served as dean from 2002 to 2013. From 2014 to 2022, he directed the American Law Institute, a century-old organization led by judges, law professors and legal experts.

He co-founded an N.Y.U.-affiliated think tank, the Institute for Policy Integrity, which devised the approach to analyzing the costs and benefits of environmental regulations that Mr. Revesz has brought to the White House.

During the Trump administration, he put that theory into practice: as the White House rolled back regulation after regulation, the nation’s Democratic attorneys general sued to fight the rollbacks. Mr. Revesz helped shape several of their winning arguments.

“He was a great resource for us,” said Brian Frosh, the former attorney general of Maryland.

After President Biden was elected, Mr. Revesz joined his transition team and immediately impressed the incoming White House political staff.

“There’s a million academics that swarm around transitions,” said Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, who worked on the Biden transition team. “But Ricky stood out right away. He was incredibly specific about how to make the agency work better, how to make things stand up in court. There was a ton of conversations about how to avoid the fate of the Obama rules, and he was incredibly clarion.”

Mr. Revesz was on Mr. Biden’s short list to head the E.P.A. — but the president’s advisers wanted to bring him straight into the White House.

When he was nominated, Jonathan Adler, a conservative law professor at Case Western University, wrote on Twitter: “He was such an obvious choice for this position, one wonders what took so long.”

In an interview, Mr. Adler said, “If you want to go to court and file lawsuits against the Biden administration’s regulations, you don’t want Ricky Revesz mounting their defense.”

Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.

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