How Clean is Clean Air?

Submitted by kvaughn on Wed, 09/28/2011 - 01:00

Last week, I discussed how our economy has become over-regulated. The recent actions of the EPA and the Obama Administration provide a prime example of the seriousness of this problem. They also highlight a disturbing trend of how this Administration operates.

The last major amendment to the Clean Air Act was made in 1990. The EPA has estimated that in 2010, the total costs of this act were $27 billion. However, despite the fact that the law has not changed, they have recently promoted a host of new regulations under the guise of this act. The two most expensive of these (smog and greenhouse gases) would potentially increase the annual cost of the Clean Air Act to $194 billion and require an army of more than a million people just to fill out and review regulatory paperwork!

US Capitol

The EPA has claimed that they are only following the law and that their air quality standards “must be based solely on an evaluation of the scientific evidence” and “the agency is prohibited from considering costs in setting” these standards. However, the law has not changed – nor has the underlying science changed. The only change has been in the personnel.

This highlights a fundamental problem with many of the laws that Congress passes. The Congress often writes laws in a vague manner in order to score political points while relegating the details to the Executive Branch. However, we are now seeing that this gives the Executive Branch extreme power to alter the meaning of existing law. As this trend has grown, the Congress has increasingly abdicated its Constitutional duty to write real laws and has instead allowed the Administration to enforce whatever rules they deem to be appropriate.

However, in each case, the Administration has done something even more concerning. While they have reinterpreted existing laws to set new, tighter standards, the Administration unilaterally decided not to immediately fully enforce these standards. In the case of smog standards, Obama publically and unilaterally overruled his own EPA administrators and “scrapped” the new standards, which would have lowered allowed concentrations from 84 ppb to 70 ppb. Much less publically, the EPA began enforcing a 75 ppb limit the next day in select locations. In addition, the American Lung Association has promised to file a lawsuit to fully enforce the EPA proposal – which is likely to be successful since the President does not have the power to overrule laws.

In the case of the greenhouse gas rule, the EPA has claimed that fully applying the law immediately would simply be “absurd.” Instead, they plan to phase in the rule - largely by 2016, but taking as long as needed. Thus, in each case, they have been able to delay the pain while imposing regulations that will eventually crush our economy. 

The reality is that “clean air” is a subjective concept. You can almost always spend more money to make the air cleaner, but there is no magic level that solves all problems. Ultimately, the “correct” level for “clean air” is not a scientific decision; it is a political and economic decision.

The good news is that our Constitutional system of government is well designed to handle political and economic challenges such as this. The House of Representatives provides a forum for representatives from across the country to come together and to debate the issues and to develop a consensus position.

However, rather than asking for these issues to be debated, career politician Representative Gerry Connolly (D, VA-11) actually voted against legislation that would have simply given Congress the ability to review this and other major regulations by the EPA.

Ken Vaughn