The Clean Air Act Gets Cleanerish

  • Share
  • Read Later

We’re all feeling the heat today on the East Coast. Some of us are even writing about it. But this week will also be marred by unusually bad air quality in the Eastern U.S.—several cities hit Code Orange or Code Red for air quality, due to dangerously high levels of ozone and other pollutants. (Check out the nationwide levels here.) In cities like Philadelphia, residents are being advised to stay inside when possible and avoid exertion outdoors. For most of us a bad air day is a nuisance, but for those with asthma or other respiratory problems, air pollution can be life-threatening.

So it was an appropriate day for the Obama Administration to take one of its strongest moves yet on air pollution. Today the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new regulations that will target power plant pollution that crosses the borders of 31 eastern states and Washington, DC. Called the Clear Air Transport Rule, the new standards—when finalized next year—will significantly reduce sulfur oxide and nitrous oxides, two smog-causing pollutants, and lead to hundreds of billions of dollars in public health savings. The new rules could help avoid as many as 36,000 premature deaths a year by reducing air pollution. “Millions of people continue to breathe unhealthy air that doesn’t meet national air quality standards,” said Gina McCarthy, EPA’ s assistant administrator for air and radiation, in a press briefing today. “Today marks a large and important step in EPA’s effort to protect public health.”

The new rules take advantage of the “good neighbor” provision of the Clear Air Act to cut interstate transport—not cars and trucks, but the drift of air pollutants across state borders. (Air pollution, not unlike oil spills, does not respect the lines of the map.) It can be difficult for downwind states to meet air quality standards because of power plant pollution from upwind states—Pennsylvania, for instance, can’t do much if power plants in more crowded New Jersey are spewing pollutants across the Delaware River. The new regulations will require cuts in power plant emissions that cross state borders, starting in 2012. The EPA expects that altogether we’ll see a reduction in sulfur dixode of 71% by 2014 and a reduction in nitrogen oxide of 52%.

Environmentalists and public health advocates were pleased with the new rules, but they’ll keep pushing for tighter regulations on power plants and air pollution. Here’s David Marshall, senior counsel for the Clean Air Task Force:

“A generation after passage of the landmark Clean Air Act, there is no reason that power plant pollution should not be tightly controlled. The control technology is widely available and very effective, and the environmental and public health benefits of controls that go beyond what the EPA proposes today vastly outweigh the relatively moderate costs.”

The health benefits are clear. According to research from the Environmental Defense Fund, SO2 and NOS emissions from eastern power plants are associated with over 23,000 to 60,000 deaths a year, 3.1 million lost work days and 18 million acute respiratory symptoms due just to particulate pollutions. According to EPA, the new rules will yield more than $120 billion in annual health benefits, reduce 240,000 cases of aggravated asthma and 1.9 million fewer days of work lost. And all that compares to the annual costs for the industry under the new regulations, which EPA estimates to about $2.8 billion a year in 2014.

Of course, electric utilities will see things differently, and you can expect industry to sue the EPA to stop the regulations. And if the courts won’t side with them, industry can also turn to Congress, as Darren Samuelsohn of Politico points out:

Industry sources have signaled that they may try get Congress to act against the EPA rules once the Obama administration promulgates them. A vehicle for doing that may be the climate legislation Senate Democrats hope to bring to the floor next month. While the legislation concerns greenhouse gas limits for power plants, it could create the opportunity for a trade-off for changes to the law governing more traditional pollutants.

That has environmentalists worried—climate legislation that weakened Clean Air Act protection against traditional pollutants would not be a good deal, as David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council points out in a post. For all the attention we pay to carbon dioxide these days, we shouldn’t forget SO2, smog and ozone—especially when the weather is threatening to smother us.

Update: As this Reuters story points out, the EPA’s tighter air pollution regulations will make it tougher and tougher for utilities to maintain—much less build—polluting coal power plants. Even without CO2 regulations or a carbon cap, tighter rules on traditional air pollutants will make life difficult for the most polluting power sources—and that generally means coal. It could turn out to be that tightening rules on smog could do more to fight climate change than anything else the EPA has done.