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“Clean air is not a partisan issue, it is a public health issue,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.)

Based on the World Resources Institute roundtable discussion (Monday, January 23, 2012)

Before being signed into a federal law in 1970 by President Nixon, the Clean Air Act was an urgent issue neither in  his campaign campaign, nor on his agenda in the beginning of his presidential term. However, it quickly became a priority and was passed into law along with approximately 60 other pieces of similar legislation during the Nixon presidency. As a matter of fact, it was a response to the nation’s rising public concerns over pollution and poor air quality. The lack of that demand today, some argue, is a major (although not the only) barrier on the way of new regulations.

Evidently, some studies suggest that people are not that eager to support new regulations in the same area – clean air – for two reasons. First, problems of air quality are not as visible to the public as they used to be in the 1960s – 1970s [Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.): “you could see, smell and taste pollution”], which creates a sense that the majority of problems have already been addressed. Second, people perceive regulations as negatively impacting the economy.

New government regulations are feared to constrain the freedom of people and corporations. But, as Senator Alexander argues, “If we don’t have a system of restraints, we are not going to succeed as a society. Rational restraints that maximize choice, not limit freedom, as some perceive regulations today, are absolutely necessary.”

Furthermore, there was no disagreement among the World Resources Institute roundtable discussion participants – two senators, a Republican and a Democrat, two former EPA administrators, and the president and CEO of PSEG, one of the largest combined electric and gas companies in the US, – on the Clean Air Act positively affecting job creation and strengthening the economy. William Reilly, former EPA Administrator (1989 – 1992) mentioned the fear of economic downturn that was associated with the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act; the fear that never realized. On the opposite, as Ralph Izzo, PSEG President, argued, “We have created hundreds [in PSEG] of jobs complying with the EPA regulations.”

Job creation is not the only issue contemplated in the debate on potentially more elaborate clean air regulations. Public health – the major reason for first regulations – is another concern. More and more research links health to air quality. Dr. Sumita Khatri, Co-Director of the Asthma Center for the Cleveland Clinic, for instance, was talking about the connection between asthma and ozone, breathing polluted air and causes of cardiovascular diseases. By and large, health care professionals have no doubts that the benefits of air regulations outweigh the costs since it is people’s health that is at stake, and a strong economy is impossible to maintain without healthy society.

All roundtable participants stressed the fact that invisibility of air pollution creates problems for a definite action. Everyone seems to agree that discourse should be based on scientific evidence and values that should determine our approach to achieving the goal of clean air. Then, available technology should be evaluated, standards set, and innovation put to work in accomplishing the goal. In his remark on the necessity to move forward with the regulations, Senator Alexander (R-Tenn.) noted that “Congress should step up on good clean air laws,” adding that “there should be a bipartisan group, not just to be bipartisan, but to get results.”

But at the same time, as William Reilly observed, no one who wants to see constructive changes to the clean air act would revisit it in the current Congress and in the current political climate. To illustrate Mr. Reilly’s argument, as of October 14, 2011 “the Republican-controlled House of Representatives had voted 168 times this year [2011] to undercut clean air and water laws,” House Republicans “are seeking delays in some of the rules, which affect air pollutants,” and President Obama delayed the smog standard telling Lisa P. Jackson, the administrator of the EPA, “that she would have an opportunity to revisit the Clean Air Act standard in 2013 – if they were still in office.” Jim DiPeso, Vice President for Policy and Communications of Republicans for Environmental Protection has reaffirmed Mr. Reilly’s observation saying that “the state of politics right now has made ecological issues untouchable… [T]he issue become politically fraught.

At the end, while the consensus on the benefits of clean air regulations being worth the costs was apparent at the WRI  roundtable, the Washington, DC policy-making community distracted by the upcoming 2012 election is far from compromises. In this regard, the major development to watch in the upcoming months is the cross-state air pollution rule, implementation of which was recently delayed by a federal appeals court.

– E.R.

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