Clean Air Act Under Attack

January 20th, 2011 at 10:07 am | 18 Comments |

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Typically, when politicians stake out a position against laws that limit pollution, they are careful to indicate support for the underlying goal of a clean and healthy environment.  Time and again we have heard the defensive refrain, “nobody wants dirty air.”

Well, apparently the new chair of the House Energy and Power Subcommittee, Ed Whitfield (R-KY) thinks that some dirty air is okay and is not afraid to say so.

In a recent interview with National Journal Daily, the coal state Republican talked about his desire to roll back provisions of the Clean Air Act, saying:

This is a much broader issue than the health of the American people and lungs and emphysema; it’s how can we balance that in the global marketplace for jobs.

Your lungs or your job. Is that the trade-off that Whitfield is asking American voters to accept? There likely wouldn’t be many takers.

Whitfield says that he wants to re-debate the wisdom of the Clean Air Act and hammer home the idea that the clean air rules are hampering the economy.

Ever since I’ve been in Congress, various groups on the business side, those entities that are creating jobs out there, have felt that the Clean Air Act is really—that there are all sorts of presumptions in favor of the environmentalists….they feel very strongly and we feel very strongly as members that we need to revisit the Clean Air Act.

It is quite telling—and a bit scary—that Whitfield describes strong clean air protections as “presumptions in favor of environmentalists.” Are we to believe no one else really wants clean air?

The Clean Air Act, which President Nixon signed into law 40 years ago, passed Congress by a vote of 374-1 in the House and 73-0 in the Senate. You cannot get much more bipartisan than that.

Nixon expressed the nation’s collective—and I might add, conservative—realization this way:

We can no longer afford to consider air and water common property, free to be abused by anyone without regard to the consequences. Instead, we should begin now to treat them as scarce resources, which we are no more free to contaminate than we are free to throw garbage into our neighbor’s yard.

Whitfield’s claim that the Clean Air Act is stifling economic development is hardly credible given that the size of the U.S. economy has tripled in constant dollars since 1970. While pollution controls do have a cost, in many cases those costs are recovered quickly due to improved efficiencies that result from the cleaner technologies.

And money spent on pollution controls translates into other economic activity, such as companies founded (and people hired) to design, manufacture, market, install and service pollution control technologies.

Whitfield’s environment and heath vs. the economy frame, while a common tactic, does not represent reality—nor the kind of can-do optimism about capitalism and American ingenuity that has characterized conservatism in the past.

Ronald Reagan was a great believer that America’s environmental health and economic health go hand in hand. He pointed out:

If we’ve learned any lessons during the past few decades, perhaps the most important is that preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it’s common sense. Our physical health, our social happiness, and our economic well-being will be sustained only by all of us working in partnership as thoughtful, effective stewards of our natural resources.

Congressman Whitfield might be surprised to learn that Reagan was a strong supporter of the Clean Air Act. In fact, in a 1984 radio address to the nation Reagan claimed some credit for it:

More than 15 years ago, the State of California decided that we needed to take action to combat the smog that was choking the beautiful cities of my home State.

Out of that concern was born the first serious program to require manufacturers to build cleaner cars and help control air pollution…It took the rest of the Nation a few years to catch on, but in 1970 the Congress followed California’s lead and enacted the Clean Air Act.

…I happened to have been Governor of California back when much of this was being done. Now, obviously, neither the problems in California nor those nationally have been solved, but I’m proud of having been one of the first to recognize that States and the Federal Government have a duty to protect our natural resources from the damaging effects of pollution that can accompany industrial development.

Republicans today would do well to echo Nixon and Reagan rather than Congressman Whitfield. If Americans become convinced that Republicans have abandoned the stewardship “duty” that President Reagan spoke so eloquently about and are too cavalier with their health, the political “balance” will not be all that healthy for the GOP in 2012.

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18 Comments so far ↓

  • Carney

    Jenkins, of course there’s a trade-off. What has economic growth been like since 1970, compared to 1945-1970?

    Having some controls is one thing, but it’s in the nature of bureaucracy to justify its existence by expanding its reach and tightening restrictions (always portrayed with positive sounding words like “strengthening”).

    At what point do we reach diminishing returns? What’s “clean”? One part per trillion? Quadrillion? Quintillion? Zero anywhere?

    Zealotry on these issues, that paints anything other than heedlessly plunging ahead to zero and damn the consequences as “favoring dirty air”, is built in to the system. The outside green groups, the specialty and general media, and the bureaucracy have no incentive to slow down or care about the impact on the economy, or even cost-effectiveness (whether a dollar spent on tightening this regulation would save more lives than tightening that one instead).

  • Carney

    If we’re actually interested in fighting smog, we should make flex fuel a required standard feature in all new cars sold in America. That would cost only $130 per new car for an automaker at the factory. Alcohol fuel burns without any smoke or particulate emissions, the cause of smog.

    THERE’s an example of effective, targeted, limited action to help the environment.

    Not sweeping-black-and-white, polluter vs. purist crusader childishness.

  • RalfW

    There is also economic value that gets destroyed when air isn’t clean. Ask northwoods Minnesota resort owners about mercury pollution of fish and how that impacts angling. Add on to that a series of years (this one excepted) where winter snowmobiling and XC skiing has been poor, and you see a lot of economic distress.

    I think we’ll see a step-up in activity from the global skiing industry to address warming. And it’s not just lift tickets they worry about, there’s billions in real estate at risk if resorts close or seasons shorten to 60 days.

  • Nanotek

    “Your lungs or your job.”

    As Churl would say, “modern conservatism in one sentence.”

    Polluters violate free-market principles because introducing their waste production off their own property and onto the common’s property is simply the rest of us subsidizing polluters.

  • Chris Balsz

    Is he talking about the Clean Air Act of 1970 or the Clean Air Act of 1990?

    Is he talking about the entire act, provisions of the Act, or Federal Regulations created to enforce the Act?

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  • lolapowers

    Mr. Frum: This is why I like you so much- you speak with absolute honesty while pointing out the clowns like Congressman Whitfield in the Republican Party who seem to have lack of common sense. How did Republicans like you never get any traction? Because this country is highly polarized and is undergoing some kind of identity crisis at the national level. I am here to listen to you as I am not influenced by the whackos in either party and I listen to the voices of reason and those who want to keep this country moving forward.

  • lolapowers

    Excellent article!

  • djenkins

    Chris, many of the things he wants to target, such as new source review, date back to the 1970s. My read is that he is looking at the entire Act, including the authority it provides EPA.

  • balconesfault

    This reflects one of the worst features of Clinton’s Free Trade push during the 1990′s.

    We should have started putting environmental protection stipulations in every trade deal back then.

    One of the original reasons why America developed a national EPA, rather than leaving it wholly up to the states, was so that states would not facilitate “pollution shopping” by industries who would preferentially locate to states willing to not develop any air or water quality standards. The EPA actually sets baseline standards protective of human health and the environment – states have the right (as we’ve seen in California and other places) to make those standards stronger to either seek higher levels of protection of health and the environment or to reduce nuisance from pollution.

    But in a global marketplace, it was inevitable that the problem would recur on a global scale. And we can’t appoint a global EPA. But America could most certainly say “we will not allow the import of steel/electronics/fabrics/etc from manufacturers that fail to meet set standards for air emissions, water discharge, and hazardous waste management”.

    Or we could levy tariffs on that basis. You get to sell things into the American market, but you get no competitive advantage from polluting your own environment.

  • Houndentenor

    Why is it safe to say “nobody wants dirty air” when there have been groups and corporations fighting anti-pollution efforts from the beginning? It’s just not true. Some people obviously DO want dirty air.

  • balconesfault

    Houndentenor – those groups don’t “want” dirty air – they just don’t want a quest for clean air to cut into their profit margins. It’s like those who want to repeal the HCR bill – they don’t WANT people to die as a result of repealing the bill … they just either for political or ideological or financial reasons consider it more important to repeal than to save those lives.

    To some degree, we all do that – I didn’t WANT the Iraqi people to continue to be ruled by Saddam … I just thought it stupid on a colossal scale for the US to invade his country. I don’t WANT Iran to have a nuclear weapon … but I sure as hell don’t want the US having to invade or nuke Iran to stop them from developing one.

    So instead of saying certain groups “want dirty air”, the right way to say it is that they by and large prioritize profit over health. Not as sexy, but a lot more descriptive and useful.

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  • forkboy1965

    Another member of the GOP who clearly is dumber than fucking toast.

    I’ll make a deal with you in the GOP who feel the same as this inane dolt: we can move all the non-job killing industries that want to foul our air, soil and water into a handful of Red states and place a giant dome over them. Cutting them off completely from ground water, the air and soil outside the dome.

    You’re free to live with those consequences while the rest of us get on with our lives recognizing that not controlling pollution comes with huge costs to us in the ways of illness, loss of productivity, etc.

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  • highplains

    I think the whole purpose of the issue by the congressman is that there are regulations (laws) being made that have not been voted on by the congress or the people. In NM the EPA passed cap and trade (on Nov. 2) after it had not passed the senate. Laws passed without the say so of the people or our congress. Other countries now produce more harmful gasses than we did when the Clean Air Act was first passed. No one want’s dirty air but you need to step back and look at the whole picture. It is ten degrees in southwest NM tonight. Global warming huh?

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