"The Clean Air Act is a law with a 40-year track record of cutting dangerous pollution to protect human health and the environment. Administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this legislation has prevented more than 400,000 premature deaths and hundreds of millions of cases of respiratory and cardiovascular disease."
Clean Air Act
In the midst of social and political upheaval during the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson proposed a variety of federally managed programs to turn America into a Great Society. In addition to fighting poverty and providing medical care for the elderly, Johnson’s agenda also laid the foundations of a major piece of environmental legislation: the Clean Air Act.
Claiming that air pollution was "a serious and growing threat to both our health and our safety," Johnson declared that the Clean Air Act (CAA) would "halt the trend toward greater contamination of our atmosphere" produced by industry.
The Clean Air Act was amended in 1970, a move which placed power in the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS), a measurement defining how much of a pollutant can be in the air anywhere in the United States. This power was further solidified when the CAA was amended again in 1977 and 1990.
According to EPA, emissions regulations for manufacturing plants and vehicles have helped decrease incidence of illnesses such as asthma and cancer, reduced damage to the environment, and even provided many new jobs in "pollution-reducing" industries. Indeed, according to EPA’s most recent CAA report, "the direct benefits from the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments are estimated to reach almost $2 trillion for the year 2020."
Despite these apparent successes, however, many suggest that cleaner air is attainable without federal regulation and the costs that accompany it. Some researchers have even pointed out that air pollution was actually declining already before the CAA was enacted. Data also suggests that air pollutants such as lead, ozone, and carbon monoxide have decreased dramatically even as automobile driving rates and coal usage have increased.
The health benefits of the Clean Air Act have also been called into question. Some suggest that air pollution might not be the main culprit in diseases such as asthma, and that elevated ozone levels might actually reduce the incidence of asthma cases in children.
On the economic level, environmental regulations such as the Clean Air Act have had profound impacts on manufacturing industries. According to one report, the CAA caused factories in high pollution areas to lose "approximately 100,000 jobs, $50 billion in capital stock, and $30 billion (1987$) of output." This same study noted that the CAA’s pollution regulations unintentionally hindered newer – and probably less-polluting – factories from surviving, while the older, more established, but heavily polluting factories were able to deal with governmental regulations at less cost.
Over the last several years, the concern over climate change and greenhouse gases has once again brought the Clean Air Act to the public’s attention, most prominently with the Supreme Court's striking down EPA's refusal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts v. EPA:
"Because greenhouse gases fit well within the Act's capacious definition of 'air pollutant,' EPA has statutory authority to regulate emission of such gases from new motor vehicles. That definition—which includes 'any air pollution agent ... , including any physical, chemical, ... substance ... emitted into ... the ambient air ... ,'—embraces all airborne compounds of whatever stripe. Moreover, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are undoubtedly 'physical [and] chemical ... substance[s].' EPA's reliance on postenactment congressional actions and deliberations it views as tantamount to a command to refrain from regulating greenhouse gas emissions is unavailing. Even if postenactment legislative history could shed light on the meaning of an otherwise-unambiguous statute, EPA identifies nothing suggesting that Congress meant to curtail EPA's power to treat greenhouse gases as air pollutants."
Concerned over a potentially devastating impact of new regulation on the economy because of this decision, expert witnesses on Capitol Hill have suggested that "Congress should amend the CAA so that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not authorized to regulate GHGs for climate change purposes" because greenhouse gas emissions and climate change should be dealt with by other means.
In September of 2011, President Obama publicly recognized the negative impact increased EPA regulations could have on economic recovery and job growth by deciding not to raise federal ozone standards for the time being. Obama, however, reiterated his belief in the importance of the Clean Air Act, stating:
"I want to be clear: my commitment and the commitment of my administration to protecting public health and the environment is unwavering. I will continue to stand with the hardworking men and women at the EPA as they strive every day to hold polluters accountable and protect our families from harmful pollution. And my administration will continue to vigorously oppose efforts to weaken EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act or dismantle the progress we have made."
As one of the leading pieces of environmental regulation in America, this topic offers a comprehensive overview of the Clean Air Act. The resources in this section provide readers with information on the history of the CAA, the costs and benefits of air pollution regulation, and the implications of this Act for America's economic and environmental future.
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