The Clean Power Plan Will Drive American Innovation

Fossil-fuel interests say regulating carbon will inhibit technological progress. They don’t know their history.

Workers complete construction on a scrubber on a power plant in Bow, New Hampshire.
Credit: Photo: PSNH/Flickr

Either President Obama has a crystal ball, or climate change deniers are extremely predictable. In his Monday remarks announcing the release of the Clean Power Plan, the president launched a preemptive strike against the rule’s opponents, accusing them of historical ignorance and of minimizing the talent of U.S. engineers.

“Whenever America has set clear rules and smarter standards for our air, our water, our children’s health, we get the same scary stories about killing jobs and businesses and freedom,” Obama said. “The kinds of criticisms that you're going to hear are simply excuses for inaction. They’re not even good business sense. They underestimate American business and American ingenuity.”

Within moments of the speech, the climate change–denying Heartland Institute sent out a press release in which it…well, underestimated American business and ingenuity.

“[T]his plan will…seriously impair the economic capacity for developing new energy technologies,” wrote Walter Starck, a policy advisor at the Koch-funded institute. “Attempting to impose technologically and economically impossible demands on energy poses a far greater threat than terrorism to America’s prosperity.”

While the Heartland Institute may place Obama in the same category as ISIS and al Qaeda, the president is demonstrably correct about past environmental regulations. When the government issues an engineering challenge to clean up our planet, the market responds. The phenomenon is known as the Porter hypothesis, after Harvard economist Michael Porter. (I mention this because most opponents of the Clean Power Plan claim to like economists.)

With an assist from President Obama, here are three engineering accomplishments—spurred into being by federal regulation—that somehow improved our natural environment without spawning an economic calamity.

The Catalytic Converter

Credit: Photo: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Oil companies began adding lead to automotive fuel in the 1920s to aid proper combustion. Although the dangers of acute lead poisoning had been known for centuries, it wasn’t until the ’70s that epidemiologists realized chronic exposure to small doses coming mostly from gasoline combustion were endangering American children. Large-scale studies showed that kids with elevated lead levels in their blood were at increased risk for learning disabilities, reduced attention span, and hearing impairment, among other problems. Exposure in utero increased the likelihood of premature birth, low birth weight, and miscarriage.

When it became clear that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would soon phase out leaded gasoline, universities and automakers called on their engineers to develop a technology to protect engines running on unleaded gasoline. By the time the EPA announced its rule in November 1973, the catalytic converter was nearly complete. A General Motors engineer said in 1995 of the improvements in emissions-control technology, “We’d like to tell you we just up and did it, but it’s in the regs.”

The catalytic converter entered into wide use in 1975 and an even better version emerged in 1981—and somehow the economy did not implode.

Credit: Photo: Duke Energy/Flickr


Engineers had been tinkering with devices to remove sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from coal-fired power plant emissions since the early 1900s, but you would have had a hard time finding one in operation for most of the 20th century. As a result, the first few decades following the Industrial Revolution saw smog descend upon the world’s great cities. The reason you can see more than 100 feet in front of you in an urban environment today is the 1963 Clean Air Act and subsequent amendments that forced utilities to control their emissions. New plants began adopting scrubbers to comply with federal law in 1971, and a tradable permit system saw existing coal plants begin to install scrubbers two decades later.

The results have been breathtaking (or, I guess, breathgiving). Between 1990 and 2012, emissions of sulfur dioxide from power plants dropped 80 percent, and nitrogen oxides emissions fell by more than 70 percent. We have cleaner air—and somehow the economy did not implode.

Fuel-Efficient Cars

Credit: Photo: Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz/Wikimedia Commons

As America was still recovering from the 1973 OPEC oil embargo—when lines at the pumps demonstrated one of the many reasons to encourage fuel efficiency—Congress established the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards in 1975. The first version sought to increase average fuel efficiency in the nation’s auto fleet to 27.5 miles per gallon by 1985—nearly double the 1975 average.

Automakers appeared at congressional hearings to tell the world that the standards were unrealistic and would condemn Americans to driving around in teeny-tiny boxes. A Chrysler exec said CAFE would “outlaw full-size sedans and station wagons” (no station wagons?!!?!), while a Ford representative said the standards would “require all subcompact vehicles” on U.S. roads.

It was all nonsense, of course. There was a brief period of technological adjustment, but by the mid-1980s, the big three were selling full-size cars while easily meeting the CAFE standards. And, again, somehow, the economy did not implode.

* * *

Technology-forcing regulation is a critical part of environmental policy—we set standards that are difficult to achieve and let the power of the human imagination find a way to get us there. Deployed intelligently, it has an excellent track record. Now step back, Heartland Institute, and let the smart people do their work.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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