View all Articles
Commentary By Oren Cass

This Earth Day, Environmentalists Should Be Celebrating. But They Are Not.

Energy, Energy Regulatory Policy, Climate

Our air is cleaner than ever, but they keep inflating the value of minor gains and demanding higher (and more costly) standards.

Environmentalists are not celebrating this Earth Day. Inside the Environmental Protection Agency there is "disgust and frustration." Outside, activists warn that President Trump's proposal to cut the EPA budget by nearly one-third will "Make America Gag Again," the costs of his policies "borne by people's hearts and lungs," especially "those who are poor and can't fend for themselves."

Everyone needs to take a deep breath—of some of the freshest air available anywhere on earth. Since passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, U.S. air pollution has declined by more than 70 percent across a wide range of emissions including lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter. More efficient vehicles continually supplant older models on the roads; power plants and factories are modernized, or replaced; the fracking revolution is expanding the role of clean-burning natural gas throughout the economy.

The Clean Air Act helps to force this evolution through its ratcheting requirement that each new generation of pollution sources be cleaner than the last. But environmental zeal, aggressive regulators, and big agency budgets are not the secret to success. American progress on air quality has persisted across Republican and Democratic administrations, across EPA expansions and contractions.

In his first two years, Reagan made EPA cuts similar to those now proposed by Trump. The New York Times reported that "[o]nce noted for its efficiency and esprit, the agency is now demoralized and virtually inert." And yet emissions of every key air pollutant declined. Ozone concentrations fell 10 times faster in those first Reagan years than during the Clinton administration; three times faster than under Obama.

Most discussions of air quality today center on control of fine particulate matter to which the EPA attributes more than 90 percent of the Clean Air Act's benefits. In 1997, EPA first set thresholds for safe levels of fine particulate matter, in 2006 it tightened them, in 2012 it tightened them again—to 12 micrograms per cubic meter, a level more than twice as tight as the European standard. But the air in virtually the entire country—outside Southern California—is still cleaner than that. Fine particulate matter emissions fell almost twice as fast under George W. Bush as under Obama, after increasing under Clinton.

If anything, now might seem an appropriate time to pause the tightening of the Clean Air Act's new-source ratchet and encourage industry to expand under the requirements applied to existing facilities. The World Health Organization reports that the average fine particulate matterconcentration of 8.3 micrograms per cubic meter puts it just above the levels in Iceland (7.6) and New Zealand (8.0) and far below levels in comparable industrialized countries like France (12.1), the United Kingdom (12.2), Germany (13.5), and Japan (14.6). Levels in London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Berlin all violate the U.S. standard; Brussels would be the dirtiest city in America.

But no matter how clean the air becomes, the mindset of the environmentalist and the methodology of the EPA bureaucrat cannot countenance any slowdown or declaration of victory. By wildly inflating the value of every marginal gain and demanding ever-tighter standards that push more of the country "out of compliance," they create the perception of permanent crisis.

In 1997, the EPA announced that its Clean Air Act regulations were delivering more than $2 trillion in annual benefits (all figures in 2015 dollars). In 2011, it added $1.5 trillion to that total, and promised yet another $600 billion by 2020 (of which 97 percent came from further reducing fine particulate matterPM2.5).

So EPA claims that by 2010 it was providing more than $12,000 in value to every American; more than $30,000 per household. By comparison, median household income in 2010 was $53,600 and had increased by less than $1,000 since 1990. If the EPA were right, we could forget concern about stagnating incomes and growing inequality. This federal agency would be single-handedly unleashing the most broad-based and rapid welfare gains in human history.

The absurdity spills across regulatory boundaries. Take ozone, for which EPA tightened standards in 1997, again in 2008, and again in 2015—to a threshold of 70 parts per billion that leaves 100 million Americans, and even some national parks, with allegedly unsafe air. The EPA claimed the benefit of its new standard far exceeded the cost. But the fine print explained that two-thirds of this benefit had nothing to do with ozone; it came from the "co-benefit" of incidental reductions from the rule that EPA anticipates in—you guessed it—fine particulate matter. Environmentalists remain unsatisfied, insisting the acceptable ozone threshold should be 60 parts per billion.

The compounding claims attain peak silliness in the context of climate change. In a 2015 report summarizing the benefits of preventing climate change, EPA found one priority dwarfed all others: cooler temperatures mean slightly cleaner air. Without climate change, EPA concluded that U.S. fine particulate matter concentrations could be 1.2 micrograms per cubic meter lower in 2100; ozone concentrations could be 2.6 parts per billion lower. Such gains are almost unmeasurably small—the U.S. achieved them in single years during the George W. Bush administration. EPA nonetheless says they are worth $930 billion per year—nearly twice the combined value of all the other climate-related effects cited.

Someone should tell the French, who are presumably unaware that they suffer a fate far worse than a century of climate change by living with the City of Light's nearly 18 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particulate matter, instead of Paris, Texas's roughly 10.

This piece originally appeared at The Weekly Standard


Oren Cass is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in The Weekly Standard