Clean Air Act's Benefits Cannot Be Ignored

EPA chief scolds reps for looking at only one half of the ledger

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Clean air just isn’t as popular as it should be. Though reducing air pollution saves lives and money, some lawmakers seem hell-bent on denying these benefits to the American public. They seem to believe that nothing should hinder polluters’ ability to make a buck, not even the prevalence of asthma, birth defects, heart disease, cancer, and other ailments that results from dirty air emissions.

Take, for example, Texas reps Joe Barton and Michael Burgess. You may remember Barton as the man who called the $20 billion BP escrow fund a "shakedown." His ideology is apparently so extreme that he doesn’t think the company responsible for the largest environmental disaster in a generation should set aside sufficient funds to help deal with the aftermath of the spill.

Last month, Barton and Burgess wrote to EPA chief Lisa Jackson with concerns that her agency’s air pollution rules are all cost, which they outlined in an accompanying chart that pairs air pollution rules with their projected price tags. Thankfully, Jackson responded yesterday (subscription required) with a straightforward admonishment: you forgot to include the benefits.

Jackson wrote:

…your letter does not present the projected economic benefits of any of the listed rulemakings. Those benefit projections can be found in the same documents from which the cost projections were drawn. Had the chart included the benefits projections, readers of it would have [been] able to see that the projected benefits of EPA’s pollution reduction rules under the Clean Air Act exceed the projected costs by 13 to 1.

Of course, Barton and Burgess didn’t forget the benefits. They just straight up ignored them. The fact that the projected benefits of EPA’s current efforts to reduce air pollution exceed the projected costs by 13 to 1 is an inconvenient truth for two lawmakers looking to block any action whatsoever.

The history of the Clean Air Act, which turned 40 this year, demonstrates that the law has been an undeniable success: tens of thousands of lives saved every year and trillions of dollars in accumulated health benefits. The act has produced $40 of benefits for every $1 spent. Clean air’s opponents find this incredibly cost-effective investment unreasonable, but the millions of Americans who breathe dirty air surely disagree.

Jackson also deftly knee-capped the refrain that the agency’s clean air rules are coming at an unprecedented pace:

The pace of EPA’s Clean Air Act regulatory work under this administration is actually not faster than the pace under either of the two previous administrations. In fact, EPA has finalized or proposed fewer Clean Air Act rules (87) over the past 21 months than in the first two years of either George W. Bush’s administration (146) or President Clinton’s administration (115).

The takeaway:

The EPA’s common-sense steps to implement the Clean Air Act results in much greater economic value than cost for Americans. The companies whose products and services bring American industry into line with the Clean Air Act’s public health requirements support hundreds of thousands of American jobs. Those requirements foster global markets for American-made technologies.

Sam Edmondson was a campaign manager on air toxics issues from 2010 until 2012. He helped organize the first 50 States United for Healthy Air event. His desire to work at an environmental organization came from the belief that if we don't do something to change our unsustainable ways, we are in big trouble.