Four decades after doom-and-gloomers and hand-wringers predicted that the Clean Air Act would result in economic apocalypse, the America-can't-innovate crowd is at it again.
House Republicans plotting attacks on the Clean Air Act are trotting out the stale lines of argument that were wrong in the past and are likely to be wrong again. Let's look at the record:
Since the 1970 adoption of the Clean Air Act by near-unanimous votes in Congress, the size of the U.S. economy has tripled in constant dollars. That's real growth, even as emissions of hydrocarbons - a precursor of lung-searing ozone smog - have been cut by more than half. Emissions of nitrogen oxides - a precursor of smog, harmful particulates, and acid rain - are down by more than 40 percent.
Sulfur dioxide emissions - acid rain and particulates precursor - are down by two-thirds. Emissions of lead - a known neurotoxin - have been cut almost to the vanishing point.
Oh, and despite dire predictions in 1970, we're still able to get around by our favorite mode of transportation. Vehicle miles traveled by every car everywhere in America have tripled over the past 40 years.
Where are we now? A big issue is mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. Mercury addles the brains of children, including the unborn ones that many in Congress profess to care about.
The elephant in the pantry is climate change, even as the deniers make like the au naturel emperor's subjects and insist that he's wearing clothes. The Environmental Protection Agency is authorized to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. The Supreme Court in 2007 said it could.
It would be better if Congress attacked the climate issue with a comprehensive bill authorizing tools not available through the Clean Air Act - setting realistic standards and timelines, offering incentives, funding R&D. Lawmakers like Senator Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, who argue for suspending EPA's greenhouse gas regulation authority say Congress only needs a little more time to act.
Don't believe them. Congress has had plenty of time to act. Congress, for a lot of reasons, hasn't acted. Until Congress does, a congressional vote to curtail EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions would demonstrate fully that lawmakers would rather indulge the incumbent oil and coal interests and their self-serving, pity-poor-me rhetoric than protect public health and encourage technological innovation.
In the spirit of offering a constructive suggestion, however, there is one area where the Clean Air Act should be changed. It involves New Source Review - no, that's not a cabaret act - which was added to the law in 1977.
At the time, Congress wrestled with the issue of cleaning up power plants and other large emissions sources that pre-dated the 1970 law - force them to clean up immediately or let them slide? The halfway house Congress came up with was New Source Review: the dirty old power plants wouldn't have to clean up immediately, but they would have to install pollution controls when they made major modifications that resulted in a significant increase in emissions.
The law of unintended consequences kicked in. Lawyers for utilities and environmental organizations have chased each other through federal courts for years arguing over interpretation of New Source Review. A lot of cleanup that should have happened hasn't. Half the nation's coal-fired power plants, many decades old, still lack scrubbers, an unfair advantage they have over newer, cleaner plants and to communities on which they impose their unhealthy emissions.
So, here's a proposed Clean Air Act amendment. All power plants, regardless of their age, must have up-to-date pollution controls installed by a date certain. Make it 2015 or 2020 at the latest. No more arguments over what's a major modification or what's a significant increase in emissions. Whether power plants go as far as adding new steam generators or do nothing more than paint the plant manager's office, they have to clean up. Clean up the old beaters or close them down.
We'd get cleaner air, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and exciting energy technology innovation that would stir the fires of entrepreneurship. Congressmen could accept that or continue believing the tiresome pessimists who have fallen flat on their face every time. It's their choice.
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