I like breathing clean air. It’s one reason I live in Alaska. These days the air has very little carbon monoxide even during air inversions. I would not want to go back to the days when poisonous ice fog swathed my city four months out of the year. I don’t think the Clean Air Act was evil or unnecessary. I think the EPA has used it abusively, overstepped its constitutional limits in enforcement and may now be trying to justify its existence by regulating naturally occurring atmospheric constituents as pollutants. I am not saying we don’t need to monitor air quality and assure that it is healthy to breathe. I just want some sanity in the public policy arena.
Harsh criticism of the current EPA’s administration of the Clean Air Act does not require a rollback of meaningful environmental protections or a slackening of future efforts to address air quality challenges. In fact, some recommended reforms would support more effective, efficient, and meaningful air quality management.
The health and welfare of real people is the foremost measure of air quality. As I tried to show in my last post, EPA regulations affect real people. The powerful incentives of the free market and private property rights, effective technological advances and process efficiencies drove the recent improvements in air quality, which occurred while the economy grew and incomes increased. Development does not necessarily mean bad air, obviously.
Creative, site-specific solutions, utilizing objective scientific methods, developed at the state and local levels worked, and air pollution decreased and enabled air quality management to work. Fairbanks homeowners voluntarily switched from coal to diesel because diesel was easier. We monitored our cars for 20 years to assure that each of them produced as little CO as possible. We still violated the CO standards until auto emission technology finally solved the problem. This was in spite of the EPA, who mandated MTBE (which I will discuss while looking at the Clean Water Act).
The EPA speaks flexibility but practices rigidity. The unchecked EPA has become a centralized economic planning agency in pursuit of an energy policy that defies both mathematics and physics. Kansas and Texas are going to have dust. Alaskans need to heat their homes and wood is an affordable, “green” (as in renewable and natural) choice. The EPA’s regulatory agenda would not only “fundamentally change the economy,” (Obama’s campaign promise), but unelected EPA technocrats would undermine this nation’s form of democratic governance. United States’ system requires elected representatives, not federal employees, make major policy decisions that affect the country and its citizens.
The Clean Air Act is now 40 years old and in urgent need of reform. The CAA gave broad discretionary authority to the EPA to make decisions regarding air quality at a time when the country really did need to address air quality. Current decisions are now jeopardizing the health of the entire economy, the livelihoods of real people, and national security. Many states now must devote finite resources to challenging the EPA’s encroachment on fundamental state authority rather than to the hands-on job of protecting air quality. In other words, air quality is suffering at the hands of bureaucracy.
Meaningful reform is essential if the CAA is to guide a broadly supported and effective response to the air quality challenges of the future. There are currently more than 500 lawsuits against the EPA’s actions under the CAA, but courts presently have sparse legal ground with which to restrain the agency. The National Academy of Sciences’ recent conclusion that the EPA’s science, supposedly the foundation of the agency’s regulatory decisions having to do with CO2 and PM 2.5, “is on the rocks” should be a clarion call for reform of the CAA.
Constitutionally, the elected branches of government are responsible for defining “healthy air”. Science should inform government decisions about air quality, but it is inherently incapable of dictating policy decisions involving a complex balance of interests, risks, costs, benefits, relative effectiveness, and scientific uncertainties. Congress actually stipulated some of the most effective federal air quality programs when it wrote the Clean Air Act, specifying the extent of emissions reduction, the timetable for compliance and the distribution of the burdens imposed by regulations. It didn’t leave these to the EPA’s discretion. These programs include the Acid Rain program (which cut relevant emissions by 50%), elimination of lead in gasoline, new engine standards (which cut 99% of the three criteria pollutants from tailpipe emissions), and the stratospheric ozone program.
Clear regulatory goals for measurable environmental benefits are the most effective. To restrain the current EPA’s overreaching actions and to forge a more effective CAA, Congress should:
Reclaim the legislative authority delegated to the EPA to set federal air quality standards for criteria pollutants and emissions limits for hazardous pollutants. The Supreme Court has ruled that an administrative agency’s power to promulgate legislative regulation is limited to the authority delegated by Congress. Congress can and should reclaim its delegated authority.
Exercise authority to approve all major rules proposed by the EPA and to establish minimal criteria for credible science and meaningful regulatory impact analyses. The EPA should function as an advisory panel, required to submit annual or semi-annual reports to Congress on specific data, including impact on jobs, electric rates, and electrical reliability as well as cumulative impacts of multiple regulations.
Effective management of air quality is impeded by the EPA’s predominant emphasis on process and micromanagement of state authorities. A 2004 National Research Council study concluded that the inflexibility and complexity of the state implementation plan (SIP) process imposed on states is counterproductive.
The process now mandates extensive amounts of time and resources in a legalistic and convoluted proposal and review process, which focuses primarily on compliance with intermediate process steps rather than an overall outcome of meeting an air quality standard.
“This process probably discourages innovation and experimentation at the state and local levels; overtaxes the limited financial and human resources available to the nation’s [air quality management system] at the state, local and federal levels; and draws attention and resources away from the more germane issue of ensuring progress towards the goal of meeting the NAAQS.” (National Research Council of the National Academies)