Don’t Let Lawmakers Undermine the Clean Air Act: It Saves Hundreds of Thousands of Lives

A handful of lawmakers in the Senate and House have been trying to block the EPA from regulating global warming pollution. This is largely a political manuever--an effort to drain away Senate support for passing a comprehensive clean energy and climate bill.

Some say that at least Senator Rockefeller’s bill – unlike Senator Murkowski’s – does not question the science of climate change.  Yet in the end, both bills would paralyze the EPA and weaken the Clean Air Act--a bedrock law that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives over its 40-year history.

You see, the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to regulate air pollutants that endanger human health and the environment. The Supreme Court recently ruled  that the Clean Air Act unambiguously covers all air pollutants, including greenhouse gases.

Last year, the EPA issued an endangerment finding--a conclusion that global warming pollution is hazardous to our health and the environment.

This is precisely what some lawmakers want to overturn. But if Congress gets to pick and choose which pollutants and which science-based findings it wants to enforce, then the Clean Air Act could quickly become the Dirty Air Act, rooted in political science instead medical science.

Imagine if lawmakers had blocked the Clean Air Act rule to phase lead out of gasoline. Industry leaders certainly tried, and the fight over the lead looked a lot like the current battle over global warming pollution.

It too started with an EPA endangerment finding, one that said lead in gasoline was a threat to public health. Oil companies claimed that the science wasn’t strong enough to justify the costs. Typical of industry’s scare campaign was this letter from a Gulf Oil Corporation executive to the EPA in 1972:

“Before the EPA imposes regulations that can have an adverse effect on the nation’s economy and unnecessarily waste our nation’s natural resources, there should be general agreement in the medical and scientific community of the actual need to restrict lead additives from a public health standpoint…Such agreement does not exist at this time.”

That sounds hauntingly familiar. Yet if those voices had prevailed back in the 1970s, and we delayed removing lead from gasoline for another 10 years, 300,000 more children would have had IQs below 70 and tens of thousands of adults would have suffered from heart disease, stroke, and hypertension.

Instead, the EPA moved forward with it lead rule and created the most successful program in its history--one that has been replicated around the world. Here in America, lead emissions from cars dropped by 95 percent by 1999. And while in the late 1970s, 88 percent of American children had blood lead levels surpassing the CDC’s level of concern, by 2000, only 2.2 percent of American children did.

The science on lead proved to be right, and no one doubts lead’s dangers today. But EPA acted, rightly, well before every last issue and denial was resolved.  Despite the organized effort by deniers to confuse the public, the scientific consensus on the causes and severity of climate change is actually far more robust today than was the case for lead in the 1970s.  The EPA was right to act then, and the EPA is right to act now.

The lead program is just one of the more famous of the Clean Air Act’s victories, but there are many others:

  • By making all new diesel engines more than 90 percent cleaner, the EPA will prevent more than 21,000 premature deaths and $160 billion in health costs every year by 2030.
  • By phasing out the most dangerous ozone-depleting chemicals, the EPA will cut the American incidences of non-melanoma skin cancer by 295 million by 2075.
  • By launching the acid rain program, the EPA has dramatically reduced soot and smog by levels that will reduce premature deaths by between 20,000 and 50,000 per year in 2010.

These are remarkable achievements--each one brought to you by the Clean Air Act. But history shows that these live-saving programs could have been thwarted by just the kind of amendments lawmakers are using today to block the EPA’s greenhouse gas rule.

NRDC is fighting these efforts to undermine the Clean Air Act. We believe the EPA must be allowed to carry out its job of regulating global warming pollution.

But we also believe that an EPA rule will only complete half the job of fighting climate change. To fully unleash innovation, offer incentives that drive down the price of clean energy, and create nearly 2 million jobs, Congress needs to pass comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation.

But in the meantime, we can not allow the Clean Air Act to become the Dirty Air Act. Tell your lawmakers not to support any amendments that will hamper the EPA from doing its job--the job of protecting Americans from dangerous pollution.

About the Authors

Frances Beinecke

Former President

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