Release the chokehold on the nation’s Clean Air Act

Posted Dec. 17, 2010, at 9:47 p.m.

As a young legislative aide in 1970, I saw Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie respond to the challenge posed by a nation choking on its industrial excesses and the damaging byproducts of a postwar highway construction binge, and I worked with him to write the Clean Air Act.

Today, Muskie’s environmental leadership remains one of Maine’s greatest gifts to America and the principal legacy of one of the most accomplished legislators in American history. The Clean Air Act is a national success story that was spurred by our core values: protecting public health, defending our environment and safeguarding our children’s future.

The Clean Air Act, 4 decades old recently, is now under attack by those who would weaken the law and the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to enforce it. Our national leaders need to choose between turning back this assault on the Clean Air Act or turning back the clock on public safety and health.

Since 1970, the EPA’s enforcement of the Clean Air Act has sharply reduced air pollution from automobiles, industrial smokestacks, utility plants, cement factories and other major sources of toxic chemicals and particulate matter that cause or contribute to asthma, emphysema, heart disease and a range of other potentially lethal respiratory ailments.

The benefits of these tough environmental policies can be measured in tens of thousands of lives saved each year. In economic terms, we have saved tens of trillions of dollars, by keeping Americans out of the hospital and in school or on the job. In fact, the EPA estimates, for every dollar we’ve spent enforcing the Clean Air Act, we’ve received $40 in health benefits.

Not only that, but safeguarding our health and protecting our air has led to innovations that have made U.S. companies and workers the leading producers of a wide range of environmental equipment. These manufacturers, along with environmental service firms, generated $282 billion in revenues in 2007, as well as $40 billion in exports, while supporting 1.6 million American jobs.

Pursuant to a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the EPA has identified carbon pollution as a danger to public health and the environment. Greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, damage human health and threaten the public welfare.

To help reverse this menace, the EPA has proposed the first-ever carbon emission standards for American cars and light trucks. Those controls will reduce U.S. oil consumption, improve air quality and strike a blow against climate change. The agency is tailoring similar standards to the largest industrial polluters in a way that phases in clear and achievable goals while allowing broad flexibility in how those objectives are achieved.

There are efforts under way in Congress, however, that would block these common-sense measures and West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller is pushing for a vote before year’s end.

Earlier this month, I joined health officials from across Maine in calling on Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to take a page out of Ed Muskie’s book and to reinforce Maine’s tradition of environmental leadership.

At 40, the Clean Air Act is too young to die. Congress should reject the efforts from coal-state legislators to turn back the clock and instead should immediately resume efforts to roll back climate change. Our two senators have supported clean energy legislation in the past, and Mainers are depending on them to support the Clean Air Act today.

That’s the way to keep faith with American values, safeguard our future and create the clean energy jobs that can power our economy for decades to come.

Eliot Cutler, a businessman and lawyer, was a legislative assistant for Sen. Edmund Muskie and an independent candidate for governor in 2010.

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