Pie-in-the-Sky Pollution

Federal Clean Air Act critics say it's an unrealistic, paper-only policy

Pie-in-the-Sky Pollution
Illustration By Doug Potter

Free-market solutions to the federal Clean Air Act – usually underwritten by the industry lobby – are easy to dismiss, until you end up sitting in a room full of lawmakers who will go back to their capitols and propose those same solutions in their home states.

This is a civics lesson in how public policy is created, and it starts at places like the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual meeting in San Francisco last week, where Texas lawmakers and lobbyists outnumbered every other state 2-to-1. No one does "free-market" better than ALEC – speakers quote Thomas Jefferson liberally and often – and the goal of conferences such as the one in San Francisco has been to find consensus among conservative lawmakers from across the nation on topics as diverse as energy, clean air, telecommunications, and education.

These days, Clean Air Act critics not only have their own advocates – the basic "self-regulation is good" speech – they also have their own scientists. Consider the siren song of critics like the American Enterprise Institute's Joel Schwartz, who told a packed room that the Clean Air Act is effective on paper only and that the political agendas of various health and environmental groups have overridden science. "What happened was that air pollution laws were hijacked in the name of other political agendas, such as ethanol and biodiesel," Schwartz told lawmakers. "We have a policy that is disconnected from real-world emissions."

Schwartz made a number of claims: The Clean Air Act's New Source Review for plants discourages businesses from replacing older grandfathered plants with newer, cleaner ones, for instance. Vehicle inspection and maintenance programs are high in cost and manpower but often yield limited results for those efforts. And studies show the effects of ozone are worst on the weekends – not weekdays – in urban areas, pointing to the fact that the Clean Air Act spends too much time on nitrogen-oxide plant emissions and too little time going after the volatile organic compounds spewed by cars and trucks. "What can we do about these federal rules and their 'pie in the sky' reforms?" Schwartz asked. "Maybe they [wouldn't] be 'pie in the sky' reforms if we limited the federal government to setting and enforcing air-quality standards by certain dates, and telling states, 'If you don't get here by this date, here's what you have to do and here's what happens to you.'"

Local environmentalists say there's enough truth in what Schwartz says, minus his spin, to make him dangerous. Neil Carman of the Sierra Club says that Schwartz ignores the bottom line on new source review, which has yielded significant results for clean air. He agreed that inspection and maintenance programs were labor intensive, but in regions like Austin-San Marcos, such measures address the biggest polluter in our communities. Carman called most of Schwartz's research "bogus" and funded by the industry.

Ramon Alvarez of the Environmental Defense Fund, the biggest environmental advocate at recent state clean-air hearings, says Schwartz has taken isolated pinpoint data to make his point while ignoring the overall combination of factors that lead to pollution. He says that it's true that submitting a plan – and not proof of actual emissions reduction – is the main compliance tool for the Clean Air Act, but that the "hammer" of the act, the possible threat of lost highway funds, has done much to motivate local regions to meet many of the clean-air goals they have set.

Scheleen Walker, who co-chaired the region's Early Action Compact, agreed with Alvarez. The Austin region – teetering on the brink of noncompliance under the Clean Air Act – has taken the unusual step of attempting to rein in ozone levels by 2007, before it becomes necessary to carry out a rigorous State Implementation Plan. Houston and Dallas are under SIPs, which require more rigorous pollution controls.

Faced with the comment that some like Schwartz might see the region's efforts as fruitless, Walker said she had a lot more confidence in a plan peer-reviewed by scientists all the way up to the top of the Bush administration than she did in the work of someone funded by the industry lobby. Models run at the University of Texas show that reductions in nitrogen oxide have twice the effectiveness in reducing ozone as reductions in vehicles' volatile organic compounds.

"I'm not a scientist, but I have a lot of confidence in our plan," Walker said. "We had to come up with a two-year plan that could provide us with some serious reductions quickly, and we continue to meet that goal. I think we're making progress."

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Clean Air Act, American Legislative Exchange Council, Joel Schwartz, New Source Review, Vehicle inspection and maintenance programs

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