One of the most remarkable pieces of legislation of the last 50 years is the Clean Air Act. This landmark bill, enacted in 1970 and revised and strengthened with bipartisan support on several subsequent occasions, has protected public health and our environment from harmful air pollution. Among its success stories are a large decrease in levels of lead poisoning in children and a dramatic improvement in ecosystem health after years of acid rain deposition.
A recent Senate resolution introduced by Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, threatens to undo some of the key provisions of the act. So far, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have declined to sign on to this resolution, for which they deserve our thanks. But as pressure grows in Washington, it is imperative that they continue to protect the character and provisions of the Clean Air Act as it is currently enacted.
The Clean Air Act is one of the best examples of science informing public policy. Its function is to protect us and the environment from pollutants that rigorous scientific research shows are harmful and dangerous.
Sen. Murkowski’s resolution focuses on a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that directs the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide, now implicated as a major contributor to global climate change, as a pollutant under the terms of the Clean Air Act. This ruling is not a piece of judicial activism but is instead merely upholding the recommendations of EPA’s own scientists who, after years of careful research, concluded that CO2 is a harmful pollutant.
Among other things, the Clean Air Act empowers the EPA to propose improved fuel efficiency standards in new cars and trucks and require that when companies construct or expand power plants, factories or other big sources of pollution, they install the best available control technology to limit emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. These regulations are neither technologically challenging — similar requirements have been in place for years to regulate emissions of sulfur dioxide and have dramatically reduced the impacts of acid rain — nor an unnecessary economic burden. According to EPA, when these rules are fully implemented through 2030, the benefits of achieving these emission reductions will outweigh the implementation costs 16-to-1.
The Murkowski resolution is bad legislation because it seeks to overturn sound, science-based policy without any compelling reasons to do so. In fact, The Washington Post reports that the resolution was not actually crafted by Murkowski, but by two lobbyists with close ties to the coal-fired electricity generation industry. Big polluters like power plants will be the only beneficiaries of Murkowski’s resolution to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate emissions that contribute to climate change.
Sens. Snowe and Collins recognize the importance of the Clean Air Act in protecting human health and environmental quality for all Americans from the harmful effects of carbon dioxide and other atmospheric pollutants. As pressure builds in Washington from industry special interests, they need to remind their colleagues in Congress of the scientific underpinnings of the act and preserve its regulatory authority for the benefit of us all.
Gordon Hamilton is a professor of climate science at the University of Maine.