Obviously, if the EPA says that a life is worth $1 million less than it used to be, it becomes less economically “practical” to enact something like cap-and-trade and energy efficiency standards. Unfortunately, the press generally covers environmental regulations in only the broadest sense, without delving into the important details, as Borenstein did, that shape arguments about their practicality and viability. Journalists should be more attentive. As the Forbes article quoted above noted:

The Environmental Protection Agency created a political firestorm back in 2003 with an analysis that calculated that the lives of those over age 70 were worth 37% less than the lives of younger people. Citizen groups for the elderly were outraged at this “senior death discount” and ultimately the EPA withdrew the report. Discussion of age distinctions are off the table now…

Borenstein actually broke that story back in 2002 when he was with the now defunct Knight Ridder news agency, a number of months before other major news outlets caught on. But there has certainly been no such “firestorm” surrounding the agency’s more recent and generalized devaluation of individuals. As Borenstein observed in yesterday’s piece, “EPA traditionally has put the highest value on life of any government agency and still does, despite efforts by administrations to bring uniformity to that figure among all departments.” But whereas the EPA has been “trimming” its figure, the Department of Transportation has twice increased its own.

Whatever the rate may be, these are the kinds of inconspicuous, but eminently consequential, details that reporters must begin paying attention to. It should come as no surprise that Borenstein (a self-professed “data geek” who likes to find stories in numbers) unearthed this particular tale, however. He had been tracking the EPA statistical-life figures ever since the “senior death discount” affair in 2002.


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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.