06/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Climate Shouldn't Kill Clean Air

Climate change and energy are in the news as the U.S. Senate, with much political drama, gears up to consider major legislation. In the House passed version and in the Senate draft, many interests - manufacturers, farmers, utilities, and oil and gas companies - were successful in winning desired concessions. Some 'asks' by industry are purely economic, part of the usual legislative give-and-take. Others go to core aspects of environmental law and policy. These requests go too far and should be rejected.

The Clean Air Act has served the country well. First passed in 1970 and signed into law by President Richard Nixon, the Act is testimony to a concern for healthy air shared by Republicans and Democrats alike. In the four decades since, the Act has cleaned up smokestacks, slashed smog and soot, cut acid rain, toxics and hazardous air pollution, held down pollution from cars, trucks and buses, and helped heal the ozone layer. All the while, the Act has supported economic growth in America, both directly as technologies are invented and businesses built to solve pollution problems, and indirectly as Americans live healthier, more productive lives.

Yet, the pending climate bills would strip away key provisions of the Clean Air Act: the EPA is prohibited from ordering greenhouse gas cuts beyond those in the bill. The states too are sidelined at least out until 2017. And a key authority exercised by California to clean up cars is in the balance.

These provisions should be dropped.

Time and again, the Clean Air Act has come to the rescue, moving in lock step with science. Take sooty pollution, for example. The EPA has acted to tighten standards when medical science demonstrated that lung disease and even death were being caused by smaller pollution particles.
Businesses say they are concerned about conflicting standards. That's easily resolved by directing the EPA to use only those tools specified by Congress for cutting climate pollution. The Clean Air Act is set up perfectly to work with this kind of directive. Already under the Act, certain kinds of pollutants are identified to be regulated through market mechanisms like trading, while others are handled through technology mandates. The EPA is authorized, and in most instances required, under the Act, regularly to review the standards and update them. In this way the EPA tightens standards to keep pace with science, but the more rigorous standard is a follow on to, not in conflict with, earlier directives.

Keep in mind, too, EPA doesn't have unlimited authority under the Clean Air Act. Once the science defines the problem, costs and technical feasibility are central to deciding the solution.
Over the last decade, the states have led the way in devising and implementing strategies to cut greenhouse gases. Their initiatives have worked well in containing pollution and raising revenues to support new clean energy projects that have grown local economies. In the climate bills, these efforts are stopped by Congress. They should not be. Even in these bills, Congress recognizes that state and federal action can co-exist.

Case in point: New federal requirements for the use of renewable energy are called for in the climate legislation -- as a complement to state action, not a replacement. The states are not preempted on renewables and should not be on climate either.

Some Senators also want to strip California of its authority under the Clean Air Act to order cuts in climate pollution caused by cars. This threatens a proven and vital instrument of environmental progress. Vehicle by vehicle, the auto fleet today is remarkably cleaner than ever before. Advances in electric and alternate fuel technology promise even more gains. But the truth is that California has always pushed the progress toward a cleaner fleet. The feds have followed. Climate pollution proves the point: the federal government is acting only now, trailing California by nearly a decade. Bottom line: cars would be dirtier and more inefficient today without California's leadership, and that's what we are in store for in the future if these provisions succeed.

It is important to remember that the pending climate bills represent only a very modest step forward in taking on the climate problem. At 17 percent by 2020, the emission reductions are small compared to the cuts called for by scientists to stabilize the climate, and even then, the generous opportunity provided in the bills to count forest and farmland conservation against pollution reduction requirements means that pollution may be offset rather than actually cut.

Attempting these far reaching rollbacks of long-standing and proven environmental policy is a particularly bad idea in the context of climate change. We know climate change presents greater challenges than any environmental problem confronted to date, imperiling the nation's security and economy as well as public health.

To meet this challenge we should be acting now to reinforce and extend environmental policy tools, not take them away.

Kathleen McGinty was Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality 1993-1998 and Secretary of the PA Dept of Environmental Protection 2003-2008