Washington, D.C. -- Forty years ago yesterday Richard Nixon reluctantly signed the Clean Air Act -- the first enduring victory during my career as an environmentalist. In that era I became an "expert" by reading one book on the topic of clean air regulation, a book written by a team of Nader's Raiders. The law as passed was full of compromises. Strengthened in 1977 and again in 1990, its enforcement was virtually abandoned for eight years under George W. Bush. And now, as we celebrate its 40th anniversary, the cries are rising again that the law needs to be weakened, precisely because the Obama administration and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson are beginning to enforce it again. Indeed, the prestigious National Journal hosted a whole forum on the question of whether the law should or should not be "dismantled."
Well, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Clean Air Act ain't broke. In fact, it is one of America's premier success stories. In 1970, when the law took its current form, unhealthy air was one of the major realities of living in most American cities. The U.S. was well on the way to locking in the kind of routine lethal episodes of smog that are now the staple conversation of anyone who has just returned from a visit to a Chinese city.
Since that time the American economy, gasoline consumption, electricity generation and vehicle travel have all soared: the basic ingredients of dirty air have grown dramatically. Yet our air is much cleaner, and a huge number of economic studies have shown that for every dollar we have invested in this clean air success story, we have reaped as much as $10 in health and economic benefits.
It's true that for a crucial eight year period -- 2000 through 2008 -- enforcement and implementation of the law by the federal government ground to a halt. The Bush administration did its best to dismantle the law, not only by taking the enforcement cop off the beat but also by proposing a series of regulatory loopholes in the law which would have legalized ongoing pollution. Fortunately, the federal courts rejected almost all of the Bush "clean air" proposals. The number of new Clean Air Act regulations that survived judicial scrutiny and ended up in the Code of Federal Regulations under Bush is sparse indeed. Much of the enforcement slack was taken up by many of the states.
But the results of this controlled experiment show just how badly we need the Clean Air Act. As a result of eight years of an effective moratorium on Clean Air Act enforcement, fully half of America's coal-fired power plants still lack basic pollution control equipment -- scrubbers, baghouses, catalytic reduction technology. One in six American women carries enough mercury in her tissues to pose a potential risk to her baby should she become pregnant, and uncontrolled coal-fired power plants are the biggest source of mercury emissions in the country. (Bush wouldn't clean up the other major sources, like outmoded chlorine manufacturing plants, either -- even though the Clean Air Act required it.) Asthma attack rates have continued to increase in most of America's major cities. Those coal plants alone are calculated to produce 24,000 premature deaths a year, at a a cost of $100 billion.
The changing political winds put an end to the moratorium on clean air that Bush tried to make permanent. Even before he left office, the auto industry turned to Congress and asked it to use the Clean Air Act to set new pollution standards for carbon dioxide pollution from passenger vehicles, because the auto companies understood that the Clean Air Act was designed for exactly this kind of task. Now the Obama administration, led by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, is moving forward to replace the illegal Bush-era regulations with science-based standards that will protect the public health. Some of these regulations, like the auto rules, will cover carbon pollution. But most will simply continue the steady forward progress at cleaning up mercury, soot, sulfur, nitrogen, and smog -- the pollutants that were on the verge of making American cities unlivable in 1970, but which we've made so much progress cleaning up in the last 40 years.
So why are we suddenly hearing clamorous cries that we should, as the National Journal put it, "dismantle" this 40-year success story? Well, there are two reasons.
One is that the coal industry recognizes that its product -- dirty carbon laced with mercury -- is no longer competitive. Coal continues to generate half of America's electricity only because coal-fired power plants have been given special status, bailouts, and loopholes from fundamental public health standards. If the Clean Air Act is implemented and coal is forced to meet the same emissions standards as competing electricity sources, coal will no longer be a low-cost electricity source. The electricity marketplace will retire the oldest and dirtiest 25-50% of our coal-fired power plants. Americans will be healthier, the electricity sector will become more innovative and competitive, and long-term energy costs will come down.
The second source of the cry for dismantling clean air is from the manufacturing sector. For twenty years, the U.S. has signed a series of trade agreements -- NAFTA and the WTO being the most important -- which lead American manufacturers to complain that if they have to make their factories clean, they can't compete with overseas plants that are allowed, through those countries' lax environmental laws, to continue to poison their citizens and neighbors.
So, argues U.S. industry, we too must have the right to poison our citizens and neighbors, and the Clean Air Act gets in the way.
These two complaints tell us a lot. They tell us that the Clean Air Act is perhaps the most powerful tool we have to modernize America's energy sector and create the new industries, jobs, and technologies we need to compete globally. They also tell us that if we don't keep international trade rules fair, we will continue to face unfair competition and pressure for dirty industry.
It's not the Clean Air Act we should dismantle -- it's a fundamentally flawed set of international trade agreements.
Follow Carl Pope on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CarlPope