Our Greatest Environmental Success Is at Risk

For 50 years the Clean Air Act has proved that health and prosperity go hand in hand. The landmark law is now under threat.
A family that suffers from asthma playing outside of a DTE coal plant in Detroit

Ami Vitale/National Geographic Image Collection

Even its most enthusiastic supporters could not have predicted the spectacular success of the Clean Air Act 50 years ago, when President Nixon signed it into law. It has dramatically reduced our exposure to dangerous pollutants like particulate matter and ground-level ozone, a precursor to smog. It has also formed the basis of our fight against climate change, a crisis the law’s drafters didn’t foresee when they drew up the terms of the bill.

It has done all that while saving a jaw-dropping sum of money. The projected net economic benefits of the Clean Air Act in 2020 alone could reach up to $3.8 trillion, largely resulting from the prevention of premature death, as well reduced hospital bills and spending. Many of these hospital visits stem from cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses linked to breathing dirty air—health burdens, it should be noted, that are borne disproportionately by communities of color and the economically disadvantaged. 

The Clean Air Act—one of the best tools we have to protect lives and improve public health—used to be a bipartisan issue. Past administrations and Congresses have recognized the incredible value of the law to our health and economy. That’s why, after the law’s initial passage in 1970, it was strengthened significantly in 1977 (under President Carter) and again in 1990 (under President George H. W. Bush).

And yet, despite the long-held consensus around the Clean Air Act’s effectiveness, the Trump administration has proposed a series of measures to blunt it. Most recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a plan to change how the government calculates the costs and benefits of regulations under the law, in a maneuver designed to limit the agency’s ability to adopt protective clean air safeguards. Another major target has been the various controls on methylmercury, the organic compound that results from the emission of inorganic mercury from smokestacks and waste pipes, which has long been known to hamper brain development in children. The agency is also working both to weaken the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants, which limit our exposure to known carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde in addition to mercury, and to withdraw the national Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), also issued under the authority of the Clean Air Act.

In 2016, the EPA projected that the national benefits of MATS for clean air and health would be as much as $90 billion per year. This included the prevention of 540,000 days lost from work or school that would otherwise have occurred. Meanwhile, the compliance costs to industry were projected to be less than $10 billion annually, and actual implementation has shown these costs to be even lower. But under Trump, the EPA reversed course and noted the rule’s cost of compliance for the fossil fuel industry outweighs its benefits. While it’s reductive to focus on the economic toll of nervous system impairment, even if there were no economic costs, allowing our children to suffer from developmental setbacks would be a crime.

The assaults on the Clean Air Act also include the EPA’s abdication of its duty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, crucial in the fight against climate change. In 2007, after a rather ludicrous argument from the Bush administration to the contrary, the Supreme Court decided that carbon dioxide must be considered an air pollutant under the law’s terms. President Obama’s headlining efforts in that fight included a deal with automakers to limit tailpipe emissions and the introduction of the Clean Power Plan, an initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s aging fleet of power plants.

The Trump administration has worked to undo both, to the detriment of our environment and our pocketbooks. Its rollbacks of emission and fuel economy standards for cars and trucks would increase greenhouse gas emissions by more than 867 million metric tons (more than the annual carbon footprint of all U.S. businesses) and cost consumers an additional $176 billion in gasoline, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation and the EPA’s own calculations. And its work to repeal the Clean Power Plan, which Obama issued under the authority of the Clean Air Act, would not only increase emissions from power plants. It would also deny the country much-needed funding and expertise to help move our economy past high-polluting fuels like coal, both of which had been built into the plan.

Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s first EPA administrator, attempted to simply repeal the Clean Power Plan altogether. When Pruitt resigned in disgrace, his successor Andrew Wheeler recognized the legal dubiousness of Pruitt’s approach. The Clean Power Plan was cost effective, good for public health, and delivered on the Supreme Court’s mandate that the EPA address greenhouse gas emissions. Wheeler changed course, proposing a sham replacement dubbed the Affordable Clean Energy Rule.

Environmental and public health advocates call that rule the Dirty Power Rule—and NRDC and its coalition partners are now challenging it in court. The initiative directs states to determine whether and how much to reduce emissions and risks returning us to a time when the federal government played virtually no role in environmental protection. That era was nothing but a race to the bottom, as states competed with one another to attract high-polluting industries, promising lax enforcement at the expense of public health. It led to the worst environmental contamination in American history.

President Richard Nixon signing the Clean Air Act of 1970

The White House

Congress enacted the Clean Air Act 50 years ago precisely to lead us out of those dark times. Lawmakers recognized that environmental protection requires strong, centralized leadership. For generations, the Clean Air Act has been the shining light in this effort, proving that we don’t have to choose between our health and our jobs. That this law is now controversial is a true measure of how polarized our political life has become. Yet the fundamental right to clean, healthy air—whether you’re a Democrat, an Independent, or a Republican—is too precious to be partisan. And as we see now, the benefits of the Clean Air Act to all Americans are too enormous to ignore.

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