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SMOG BUSTING RUN AMOK : The federal EPA seeks to impose regulations that threaten to alienate Clinton’s natural allies

<i> David Friedman, director of the New Economy Project, writes frequently on regional and technology issues</i>

Mayor Richard Riordan’s 11th-hour request that the Air Quality Management District delay its vote to impose Draconian air-pollution regulations on Southern California high lights yet another example of the Clinton Administration’s inexplicable anti-urban bi as. The newly invigorated Environmental Protection Agency is forcing local officials to adopt severe, ill-conceived measures that will hurt the nation’s struggling urban economies while encouraging population and industrial migrations into precisely those less-urbanized regions where Bill Clinton is most virulently opposed.

Nowhere is this self-destructive tendency more apparent than in the EPA’s takeover, earlier this year, of Southern California’s air-pollution control efforts.

Before federal intervention, there were many positive trends in local air-pollution abatement. The AQMD was curbing its worst regulatory excesses, weighing more carefully the economic costs and effectiveness of its clean-up efforts while promoting a “user-friendly” image. In conjunction with local companies, novel measures were developed, such as pollution credits, and the region initiated a 30-year, $184-billion mass-transit program. Despite rapid population growth during the last two decades, Los Angeles has led the nation in improving its air quality.

None of this was good enough for the EPA. After losing a lawsuit alleging that it had not enforced federal air-pollution laws, the agency announced, in February, that it was developing federal implementation plans, or FIPs, for areas of the country that failed to meet Clean Air Act standards. Starting with California, the FIPs would mandate anti-pollution measures that could be substituted for local plans, such as those developed by the AQMD, at the EPA’s own discretion.

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Warily watched by other urban officials, the results in Southern California shocked even the most jaded observers of federal excess. During public hearings last month, the Administration unveiled a 1,700-page plan--about 400 pages longer than its abandoned health plan--to regulate, for the first time in history, everything that could possibly contaminate the air: interstate and international commerce, automobiles, trucks, ships, railroads, airplanes, factories, zero-emission vehicles, offices, retail businesses, mass transit, commuters, road construction, aerosol sprays, pesticides, pleasure vehicles, lawn mowers, farm equipment and back-yard barbecues.

The FIP’s 106 measures include novel, untested requirements to tax domestic and international ships and airlines up to $10,000 per ton of emissions they generate; mandatory “no-drive” days for residents and businesses; diesel-truck engine standards that are presently unattainable, coupled with harsh fines for companies whose fleets fail to comply; the retrofitting and downsizing of commercial vehicles; limits on the deliveries that out-of-state trucks can make in the region, and severe agricultural-equipment restrictions.

Even proponents of the FIP--and the now closely related AQMD plan that stirred Riordan’s anxiety--admit that it will strip more than 100,000 jobs from the local economy and cost $4 billion to $6 billion a year over 16 years.

But the real costs are almost certainly higher. The environmental agency concedes that 60 of its proposed measures cannot be quantified. Independent appraisals of the FIP transportation and agricultural mandates alone amount to $192 billion and $257 billion, respectively. Other industry experts estimate a 40%-to-60% decline in Los Angeles’ airline, port and trucking industries by 2005, far more than the government predicts.

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Even with such staggering commercial, employment and social costs, it is far from clear that the proposals will clear the air. Decreasing the size of trucks, for example, could generate more pollution by increasing the number of trips required to move the same amount of freight. The FIP also mandates emission reductions that the EPA concedes it doesn’t know how to achieve.

Ironically, the EPA’s plan encourages and reinforces the dispersion of high-wage, high-skill urban industries to peripheral regions of the country, fostering pollution where it is not currently a problem. As cities like Los Angeles become economically untenable, families and businesses flood into ecologically sensitive, pristine regions, including the Sierra Nevada foothills, where 8 million Californians now live, or into the intermountain west. This spreads environmentally harmful industrial and urban development problems to some of the most sensitive and least-monitored parts of the nation. And, by strengthening peripheral regions at the expense of major cities, the Administration alienates its natural political allies in favor of Nevada, Utah or North Carolina, where the President’s approval ratings are measured in single digits, or the low teens.

How could such perverse results be possible?

Unlike the mostly homogenous peripheral regions, major cities sustain highly vocal special-interest groups that have no direct ties to the local economy--public-interest lawyers, actors, university professors, for example. Backed by an often sympathetic media, they advance agendas that undervalue middle-class or business concerns. Time and again, the Administration has committed the mistake of believing that by responding to such constituencies, it would be promoting “enlightened pro-urban” policies. As with the FIPs, however, it then discovers that it seriously miscalculated the political support for and consequences of its interventions, forcing a mad scramble to save face while trying to win back the trust of more mainstream interests.

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A second problem is the Administration’s chronic policy incoherence. Southern California, like other non-compliant air-pollution regions, cannot meet federal standards because of its geography and weather, not because residents drive or own more cars. Imposing the same regulations that work in regions where wind or rain disperse pollutants severely harms industries in less accommodating climates. The only economically feasible solution for such trouble spots is full-scale development and distribution of zero-emission vehicles and other non-polluting technologies to reduce “mobile source” emissions, which cause 90% of Southern California’s smog, and lightening industrial regulatory burdens.

But the EPA seems uninterested in such an approach. While conducting hearings on California’s FIP, it bowed to pressure from U.S. automakers and thwarted efforts by several Eastern states to adopt California-style electric-car mandates. Abandoning the possibility of vigorous federal support for the technologies California needs to meet clean-air standards, the Administration could only propose further regulation of the state’s urban industries.

Virtually the same political logic threatens to produce equally damaging results in water policy. Earlier this year, the Administration waded into California’s stalled Bay Delta negotiations and proposed huge water diversions from statewide aqueducts to satisfy environmentalists’ concerns.

Agriculture and environmental uses, however, already consume 90% of California’s developed-water supplies. Just 10% goes to all the state’s urban regions, including approximately 3% to Los Angeles County. By diverting water to the Delta without also reforming archaic state and federal policies that lock the state’s water into less productive non-urban uses, the Administration further imperils increasingly tenuous urban-water supplies--all to benefit bedrock Republicans like Central Valley growers.

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Stung by growing opposition to its plans, the EPA desperately hopes that the AQMD will vote next month to impose most of its proposals, thus shielding the Administration from criticism. Riordan’s timely intervention, however, has at least forced a discussion of alternatives to the EPA, and could cause many of the most onerous measures to be dropped completely.

But a far more comprehensive rethinking of the relationship between the federal government and local economies is ultimately required if urban areas in California, and the rest of the country, are to flourish. The constant threat that the federal government will intervene in the economy is a principal reason why the state’s urban regions are hemorrhaging much of their resources to less-regulated areas. To alleviate such problems, Washington must cede greater authority to local entities and then unambiguously support the key initiatives they identify--such as zero-emission vehicle development or water-allocation reforms--that can achieve important environmental or social goals without eroding industrial vitality.

Rather than weaken his core constituencies, Clinton should champion such efforts. If he loses the cities, he will, without fail, also lose his presidency.*


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