Ignore All Doomsayers on EPA Laws

Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor to the Atlantic Monthly. His most recent book is "A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism" (Viking)

Last week’s environmental news was as if a time tunnel had opened to 1970, spilling headlines from that year onto today’s pages. The federal government proposed strict new regulations for smog reduction, something that first happened in 1970. And, just as in 1970, nearly all reaction was pessimistic. Environmental activists declared that thickening smog was choking the skies, a menace to life. Corporate leaders decreed the new goals to be wild-eyed idealism, requiring impossible technology and sure to bankrupt industry. Politicians expressed alarm over runaway regulations.

Time-tunnel calibration note: Despite gloomy predictions, the first round of federal anti-smog rules, proposed on 1970, turned out to work surprisingly well at affordable cost. Ditto for the strengthened rules that followed in 1977 and 1990. And so, too, will the rules the Environmental Protection Agency proposed Wednesday. Yes, of course the proposal will be revealed to contain some paragraph of hieroglyphic regulatory unintelligibility or some detail that all parties will soon come to wish they had never heard of. But the essential fact is: Every previous major initiative to clean the air has been a success.

All forms of air pollution, including urban smog, have declined dramatically in the United States during the past 25 years. The air in big cities, including Los Angeles, has not been getting worse, as the green doomsday crowd loves to say, but growing notably cleaner. Overall, Los Angeles smog has declined by about 40% since 1970, even as the human population of the Basin has soared and the car population has almost tripled. As recently as 1988, Los Angeles experienced 148 days of smog-danger warnings. By 1992 that number had fallen to 42 days; by last year, to just 14.

Nationally, acid rain has declined by more than 50% since 1970; other forms of air pollution have fallen even faster. The number of people living in areas with significant violations of federal air-quality standards has declined by more than half in the past decade alone. There is absolutely no cause for alarm or pessimism about air-pollution trends. They are positive and have been for some time. Stricter new rules will accelerate the positive trend.


Equally important, declines in air pollution have been achieved without material sacrifice or harm to anyone’s life style. Adjusted for inflation, the gross domestic product today is more than double what it was in 1970. Employment has grown about 60% through the period, faster than growth in the labor force. Standards of living have risen for most of the population. In other words, air pollution has gone down sharply during the same period in which the country’s economic vibrancy has increased.

Environmental regulations have not crippled the nation--as the conservative doomsday crowd loves to say. They’ve been making the nation safer, healthier and stronger.

Rapid progress against smog has been realized because technical innovations have cut pollution on nearly all fronts. Advanced tailpipe controls now allow new cars to emit less than 2% as much pollution, per mile traveled, as 1970 models. These controls started out complicated and undependable, but are now so reliable most drivers have forgotten they’re there. When requirements for tailpipe controls were first imposed in 1970, auto makers called them impossible, or predicted a cost of $5,000 per car. Instead, they cost a few hundred dollars.

Numerous other air-pollution initiatives have been cheaper and more effective than projected. New acid-rain controls, imposed in 1990, were projected to cost $6 billion annually. Instead, they are costing about $1 billion, while cutting acid rain faster than expected. Overall, the Clean Air Act of 1990 was projected by the Bush administration, its sponsor, to cost $19 billion per year. Industry groups said the true figure would be $40 billion, while conservative commentators predicted an instant “clean-air recession.” Instead, the cost of the 1990 rules is probably running less than $10 billion per year, while the economy is steadily growing.


Industry has a lengthy track record of asserting that whatever new ecological rule is proposed represents the last straw. That’s what is being said of the anti-smog rules, and it’s no more likely to prove true than the last 28,000 times it was said.

Environmentalists, for their part, have a track record of crying wolf, and that behavior is also repeating itself. As part of the lobbying over the new EPA rules, activists have focused on recent studies suggesting that airborne “particulates"--tiny smudges of dust or smoke-like flecks of incomplete combustion from engines and factories--represent an unprecedented health threat. Studies do prove “particulates” need to be taken more seriously, as the EPA rules propose. But no public-health calamity is in progress. By almost every measure other than AIDS, U.S. public health has improved spectacularly over the past 25 years. Perhaps public health could be improving even faster with new anti-smog rules. But the health-trend line is good, not bad.

The outbreak of negativism over last week’s announcement is a vivid demonstration of how partisans on both sides of ecological issues prefer to live in an “us vs. them” world. For partisans, the new rules will provide a perverse pleasure.

For example, because standards will be more strict, the number of cities in violation of EPA smog rules will skyrocket the moment the proposal becomes final. What great news for environmentalist fund-raising! In recent years, the number of cities the EPA classifies as violating air standards has fallen steadily, from 98 in 1990 to 74 last year--with Detroit, Pittsburgh and others dropping off the list. Now the list will grow again, making it appear things are getting worse, when actually they’re getting better. Environmentalists will be in a position to speak darkly of the shocking increase in the number of Americans living in places where the air is classified as hazardous, not explaining that people in such places are breathing steadily cleaner air: It’s just the classification system that has changed.

Similarly, conservative fund-raisers and the Newtoid faction in the House of Representatives will now have a new regulatory outrage to become lathered over. They will be in a position to assail their constituencies with improbable horror stories of sinister regulators seizing lawn mowers and arresting people for having cookouts. Just as environmentalists won’t mention that smog is declining, conservatives won’t mention that the success of air-pollution reduction has benefited all Americans--even conservatives, who must breathe, too.

After all, the success of antipollution initiatives represents a triumph for U.S. technology. Most antipollution gains have come from clever, efficient devices invented by engineers and marketed by businesspeople. Consider that the next round of smog regulations may require an eventual transition to electric vehicles and natural-gas power to supplant diesel fuel, which is useful but dirty. Industry spokespeople are calling this impossible--and it is, in that it can’t be done next year. But over the next two decades, moving vehicle technology toward electric and natural-gas power makes much sense--and should represent an exciting challenge for America’s technical minds. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) says he is a “futurist.” If U.S. capitalism is unfolding into a bright tomorrow, business had better triumph on every issue of resource efficiency and pollution minimization.

Within the proposed new rules are valid grounds for contention. The new rule on particulates, for example, will require industry and most cars and trucks to emit no particles wider than about one-tenth the width of a human hair. If you’re optimistic about the power of technology, you’ll believe, as I do, that factories and engines meeting this standard will someday be built. But it can’t happen overnight; and even if a technology to control very small particulates were invented tomorrow, it would take many years to get the necessary hardware into general circulation.

Business will have reasonable ground to insist that, as the new smog rules are debated, planners take every opportunity to incorporate market-based mechanisms and flexible programs. Last summer, a group of technical advisors to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the organization that enforces L.A.'s extra-strict rules, resigned to protest a decision to implement more flexible, market-friendly rules. The resignations were tinged with disgust over the idea of environmental purists adapting a cooperative attitude toward even the most valid business needs. But this is a good idea--as long as pollution continues to fall. Flexible, user-friendly rules were a smashing success at reducing acid-rain emissions. They can work against smog, too.


And environmentalists will have reasonable ground to insist that Washington not retreat from the goal of less smog. Clean-air thinking won last week’s round, but the outcome was predetermined: The EPA was acting under a court order that all but mandated strict rules. Over the winter, anti-environmental forces may attempt to amend the Clean Air Act, removing the language underlying the court order. The Clean Air Act isn’t perfect, but, in the main, it ranks as among the most successful, cost-effective government initiatives of the modern era. Amending the act to render it more user-friendly to industry would be fine. Any amendments that retreat from the goal of ever-lower pollution would be a step backward through the time tunnel.

A hopeful sign is that even some people whose lives will be complicated by the new rules are taking an optimistic view. As John C. Dunlap, head of the California Air Resources Board, said last week, “We must never be afraid to set ambitious goals.” So, everyone take a deep breath. Things are going to turn out fine.