The Reagan administration has once again shown its astute political sense in the way it is seeking to ease antipollution standards under the US Clean Air Act. Rather than present Congress with a detailed administration bill that would immediately become the target of environmentalists, it is taking a more subtle approach. That is, it has announced a series of "principles" to lessen auto emissions standards and turn more responsibility for clean air over to the states, while leaving the actual drafting of legislation to Congress where Republicans control the Senate.
It is hard to fault the approach, or even many of the priciples enunciated by the administration. At the same time environmentalists should take at least modest encouragement from the fact that the administration has not sought a frontal undoing of the 1970 act, which has been frequently criticized by important segments of the business community. What is now important is that Congress show great restraint in modifying the act to make it more workable, without in any way compromising its essential goal of ensuring clean air for all Americans.
Some aspects of the administration plan make good sense. Mr. Reagan, for example, rejected industry demands that air standards be based only on cost-benefit analysis. Rather, standards will be based on "sound" scientific data and "real" health risks. The President is also proposing that there be uniform emissions standards for new coal-fired plants. That means that utilities could individually decide how best to meet such standards, whether, for example, by installing expensive scrubbers or by burning low-sulfur coal. Utilities must now install scrubbers.
The administration would also keep the writing of air standards at the federal level. There also remains justification for rethinking the rigid clean-air deadlines for cities like Los Angeles, Denver, and Houston that will likely not be able to meet them.
Other aspects of the administration plan are dubious. That is especially so for rolling back auto-emissions standards for 1982 to 1977 levels for nitrogen oxides (which would be twice the current levels) as well as for carbon monoxide. This makes little sense, since the current nitrogen oxide standards have already been met for most cars. Congress should resist such a retrogade step.
Also, does it make sense in the long run to let polluters actually bring new polluted air into areas that are already cleaner than required so long as national standards are not exceeded? Why not preserve the clean air already in place? Congress should also ward off efforts to so lessen enforcement of the act as to gut it. Finally, while Mr. Reagan plans accelerated research into acid rain, no new steps are contemplated for limiting sulfur dioxide from power plants and automobiles.
Still, with its cautious approach the Reagan administration is in effect recognizing the value of the Clean Air Act. Modification of the act is properly in order. But there must be no tampering with the fundamental principle of the legislation -- a commitment to clean and pure air for all Americans.