Widely reported statements from industry lobbyists suggest that the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) proposal to improve air-quality standards spells economic doom.
In fact, strengthening air-quality standards to prevent respiratory illness, tens of thousands of premature deaths, and billions of dollars in medical expenses may help bring about long overdue common-sense changes that will prove economically beneficial in the long run.
(The EPA recently extended its deadline to March 12 for public comments on its proposal. People can call 1-888-TELLEPA, toll-free, to make their views known.)
Already some progress
We can provide energy for homes, business, and transportation with far less pollution than we do now. Some cities have already begun switching their bus fleets to natural gas, and many power plants now use alternative fuels or support energy-efficiency improvements.
Changes such as these will help us meet the new standards and develop a more economically resilient energy strategy over the long term.
Nevertheless, 26 years after the Clean Air Act became law, we still allow most trucks and buses to belch diesel fumes into the air and tolerate uncontrolled pollution from huge Midwestern coal-burning power plants.
Polluters have used the inadequate current standards to avoid needed changes. For example, electric utility lobbyists convinced officials in Pennsylvania not to support strict nitrogen oxide emissions reduction requirements by arguing that local air may meet current standards.
Since the polluters have persuaded many state legislatures to pass laws forbidding officials from going beyond federal minimum standards, efforts to protect people from harmful pollution levels have been stalled. People are being told, in effect, that the government already protects their health when it does not.
This charade harms efforts to clean up unhealthful East Coast air. New York, for example, receives significant amounts of pollution from large power plants in western Pennsylvania and the Midwest. New York officials fear that meeting their Clean Air Act obligations may prove futile because of smog from out of state. Because it thinks it's futile, New York fails to meet its cleanup obligations. And this undermines efforts in Massachusetts and Connecticut, recipients of New York's pollution. The polluters have created a dirty snowball effect that depends on keeping the health-based standards dishonest.
Predictably, polluters have claimed that the proposed revision of air quality standards will trigger job losses. But industry costs don't automatically translate into such losses. In fact, pollution-control requirements have caused a small net increase in jobs because they tend to force polluters to hire people to control pollution. Furthermore, we shouldn't equate a polluter's economic interests with those of society as a whole. Polluters often oppose pollution control precisely because they prefer high profits to increased hiring.
In addition, polluters' compliance cost estimates tend to grossly mislead government officials. Acid rain controls, for instance, have cost a fraction of the amount EPA and industry officials estimated at the time Congress adopted the sulfur dioxide reduction program.
Studies of older pollution-control programs also have shown that EPA and polluter pre-regulation estimates regularly overstate actual post-regulation compliance costs. The law requires the EPA to write new standards that adequately protect public health. Congress wrote the law this way for a simple reason: We all must breathe and therefore cannot choose to avoid the health problems poor air quality creates.
Industry lobbyists will pressure the EPA to neglect this legal obligation to write new standards that adequately protect public health. They will seek congressional review of the final standards, arguing that the costs of pollution control outweigh the benefits of stricter standards.
Congress and the EPA should realize that the short-term costs will economically benefit some workers and companies with cleaner alternative technologies. In the long run, pollution-reducing investments will benefit the economy as a whole. More important, stricter air-quality standards will remedy ongoing harm to vulnerable children, the elderly, and asthma sufferers.
The EPA and Congress should not allow dirty air to harm millions of people, despite the usual whining from special interests. Strengthening air quality standards will spur long overdue and very beneficial change.
* David M. Driesen is on the faculty of the Center for Global Law and Practice at Syracuse University College of Law.