It’s been a good year for clean air, and we are grateful. In the last 12 months, the Environmental Protection Agency, under the Obama Administration, has finalized three new clean air standards that will protect Americans from dangerous pollution from power plants and other industrial sources. The administration has also set new fuel efficiency standards for motor vehicles that will nearly double the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks by 2025 and significantly reduce pollution. These standards will save thousands of lives annually, prevent asthma attacks and heart attacks, keep our environment cleaner and allow us all to breathe easier.
In mid-December, the EPA set a stronger standard on soot pollution. Soot is made up of tiny particles of metals and dust — each at least 30 times narrower than a human hair — that can penetrate deep into our lungs and cause significant health problems, particularly for the elderly, children and people with respiratory ailments or heart disease. Soot usually comes from power plants, factories and diesel emissions. Nationally, the number of premature deaths that could be avoided every year from the most protective soot standard is equivalent to the size of a sold-out crowd at Fenway Park, Boston’s historic baseball stadium.
Earlier this year, the EPA set the first standard on global warming pollution from new power plants. Since power plants are the number one source of these emissions, this standard begins to address the kind of pollution that is heating up the planet to dangerous levels and contributing to climate change. Americans showed broad support for this standard, submitting more than 3 million comments to the EPA, the largest number ever collected in support of an EPA clean air protection. It’s no wonder people want the government to act. Hurricane Sandy is a recent and powerful reminder of the growing number of violent weather events, droughts and fires — fueled by climate change — that have devastated people and communities across the country. Now we need to move quickly to complete this part of the process by setting carbon emissions standards for existing power plants as well.
In mid-December last year, the EPA also finalized new standards to reduce mercury, arsenic, dioxin and other toxic emissions from power plants. This standard will reduce mercury emissions by 91 percent, while reducing their terrible health effects for both people and wildlife. This is good news in Maine, where our lakes and fish have high levels of mercury because we are downwind from Midwestern power plants.
Last summer, President Barack Obama and his administration nearly doubled fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks – the second largest source of global warming pollution — to 54.5 miles per gallon. This is the single biggest step the U.S. has ever taken to address climate-changing pollution. Plus, it will save consumers more than $1.7 trillion at the gas pump.
The next opportunity to clean up our air and support cleaner energy is a Congressional vote to extend the production tax credit, a business incentive for clean energy development that has helped to create thousands of jobs across the country, including here in Maine. Unlike coal and other dirty sources of energy, producing renewable energy doesn’t pump carbon or other pollutants into our atmosphere that can drive climate change and harm public health. This vote is due by Dec. 31.
Oil, gas and coal interests and their allies in Congress are doing everything they can to block and roll back these standards and clean energy incentives. While they historically have received generous government subsidies (more than $4 billion in annual tax subsidies), they spent $270 million on TV ads in the two months before the election, to beat back clean air candidates and these new public health standards. But voters rejected these special interest efforts. Poll after poll confirms that the American people count on the EPA to protect them from dangerous air pollution, that they don’t trust polluters to police themselves and that they don’t buy the polluters’ claims that EPA safeguards hurt jobs. Here in Maine we know that a healthy environment and a healthy economy are strongly linked.
Cleaning up air pollution and investing in clean energy will save lives and spur economic growth through innovation and the development of cleaner technologies to modernize power plants and produce cleaner, safer energy. We ask Maine’s senators to help stop these rollbacks and ensure that the EPA can carry forward its Clean Air Act protection programs.
There can be no greater gift to all of us than clean air.
Lisa Pohlmann is executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and Nancy Cummings is a doctor from Farmington.