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The Clean Air Act at 50

December 31, 2020 Work Area: Power Plants

Today —December 31, 2020— marks the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Clean Air Act. Shepherded by Maine Senator, Edmund Muskie, passed unanimously in the Senate and by a 374-1 margin in the House, and signed by Republican President, Richard Nixon on New Year’s Eve 1970, the Act arguably represents the most successful U.S. environmental statute of all time, a model for other nations, and a highwater mark of bipartisan support for environmental progress. As amended in 1977 and 1990, the Act deploys a diverse portfolio of policy strategies to combat air and climate pollution, including health-based ambient air quality standards, technology-based standards, technology-forcing standards, specific pollutant bans, and market mechanisms. The Act’s citizen suit provisions empower citizen activists and organizations to hold EPA and polluters accountable and continue progress — particularly when, as has been the case for the past four years, an administration hostile to the very mission of the Act is in power.

The implementation of the Clean Air Act has led to substantial, measurable improvements in air quality. Just since 1990, EPA data shows that fine particulate matter pollution has declined by 40 percent and concentrations of ozone smog, have declined by 22 percent. Critical to this progress was Clean Air Task Force’s work on and defense of regulations such as the Mercury Air Toxics Standards which requires significant power plant air toxics emissions reductions, and rules under the Act’s “Good Neighbor” provisions, like the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), and others requiring interstate pollution reductions, which have dramatically reduced the interstate transport of soot and smog, as well as regulations setting tighter emission standards for new diesel engines.

A peer-reviewed EPA study found that by 2020, the reductions in fine particle and ozone pollution achieved by the Clean Air Act are avoiding more than 230,000 premature deaths, 200,000 heart attacks (acute myocardial infarction), millions of cases of respiratory problems such as acute bronchitis and asthma attacks, and 120,000 emergency room visits each year. In 2020,  the benefits of the Act outweighed its costs by more 30-to-1 ($1.8 trillion to $65 billion). The study also found that since 1970, aggregate emissions of conventional air pollutants dropped 68 percent, while the U.S. gross domestic product grew 212 percent, demonstrating that environmental and economic progress are compatible when accomplished through sensible regulation.

And, five decades on, the work of the Clean Air Act is far from finished. Despite progress nationally, all too often communities living nearest to air pollution sources continue to breathe dirtier air than other Americans and therefore suffer disproportionately from the adverse health effects of such pollution exposure. Those communities, as EPA itself recognizes, are more likely to be communities of color and of lower-income levels.  CATF has documented that that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by power plants, diesel exhaust, and toxic air pollution from oil and gas development. Early public health research suggests that this disproportionate burden, which contributes to higher risk levels for respiratory and cardiovascular disease and of premature death, may also have left people in those communities more vulnerable to the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.[1]

The Act also provides EPA the authority to reduce the risk of the overarching environmental issue of our time: climate change. The Supreme Court held over a decade ago that the Act’s definition of air pollutant easily includes the greenhouse gas emissions that cause planetary warming, and, under the Obama Administration, EPA used that authority to promulgate regulations on power plants (the Clean Power Plan and Carbon Pollution Standards), clean car and truck standards, and methane emission standards for the oil and gas industry. As demonstrated by the unhealthy air quality caused by the wildfires currently ravaging the west that are made more frequent and severe due to heat and drought associated with climate change, reducing those greenhouse gas emissions also has the benefit of helping to mitigate the host of associated air quality health-related challenges made worse by climate change. A warming world also means a more volatile atmosphere more conducive to the formation and persistence of air pollution and unhealthy air quality.

Sadly, in its 50-year life, the Clean Air Act has never faced an Administration more hostile to its goals than the Trump Administration. The sheer volume of direct and assaults leveled at it by the Trump Administration over the past four years has been astounding. Even during what by convention should be a transition to a new EPA team, the Trump EPA continues this assault, with rules seeking to hamstring the Biden Administration’s future work. These rollbacks have included rescinding the Obama Administration’s landmark climate regulations including the Clean Power Plan, vehicle greenhouse gas standards, and methane emission standards for the Oil and Gas industry, as well as hijacking the ambient air quality standards process in an effort to cement in do-nothing standards, and forcing the agency to undertake unnecessary, and unlawful “cost-benefit analysis” of each of its rules going forward. Just today, we have word that the Trump EPA has signed a rule actively censoring the Agency’s use of the best available science linking air pollution and adverse human health impacts.

Over the years, in defending the Obama regulations and challenging the Trump rollbacks in court, Clean Air Task Force has been honored to represent such diverse clients as the American Lung Association, the American Public Health Association, the National Wildlife Federation, and others at the national level, as well as many regional and state environmental organizations, like Conservation Law Foundation,  the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Clean Wisconsin, and The Ohio Environmental Council to name a few. Through our ongoing litigation on behalf of our clients, we aim to overturn the Trump rollbacks and preserve the Act’s authority for future Administrations to fulfill the duties laid out in to protect public health and combat climate change. And, we are working with the Biden transition team to map a strategy to quickly overcome the midnight roadblocks thrown up by the Trump EPA and move forward into 2021 to address the remaining air quality and climate change challenges – we look forward to ushering in the second half-century of positive action under the Clean Air Act.

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