At a time when national policies seem to fail time and again on budgets, taxes, immigration, health care, your income security and our national security, it is sometimes hard to believe that the federal government can ever do anything right.
But there is one success launched by Congress 40 years ago that produces tremendous benefits for you and your family even today. That is the air pollution control programs of the Clean Air Act. These programs make it possible for all of us to breathe easy as we enjoy blue skies over our cities, our parks, our lakes and our hiking trails. Surprisingly, the car sitting in your driveway is the biggest miracle in this story of Congressional success.
But the story doesn’t start in a subcommittee of the U.S. Congress. It starts on the highways of Southern California in the 1950s and 60s with tens of thousands of cars stuck in traffic emitting noxious pollutants as their fuel evaporates from carburetors, engines and gas tanks. On a hot day back then, you could actually see the vapors rise in waves over the hood. Joined with nitrogen oxide pollutants emitted when the cars burned their fuel to move forward, and summer sunlight, these pollutants recombined in the atmosphere to produce a brew known as smog. The chemical signature of a smog molecule is O3, otherwise known as ozone. If your lung is exposed to ozone, it reacts just as it would if exposed to chlorine bleach—your lung tissues swell, your capacity for work or play declines and, if you have asthma, you may be on your way to the hospital.
The tremendous explosion in auto traffic in Southern California in the 1960s, combined with the unique geophysical characteristics of the Los Angeles basin, made smog pollution a public health crisis. The state of California responded with new pollution control requirements for automobiles. As auto traffic grew in other parts of the nation, the public health threat from smog grew across the country as well. And it wasn’t just smog. In many northern and western cities, carbon monoxide pollution resulting from incomplete combustion of gasoline fuel as cars started up on cold winter mornings contributed to an increased number of heart attacks in older Americans. And lead added to gasoline to increase octane and keep engines from knocking settled out of the air to contaminate urban parks and playgrounds, poisoning children’s blood and impairing their cognitive abilities. Like cigarettes, cars became a serious threat to public health.
In 1970, Congress acted to address this threat, adopting the Clean Air Act that required a 75 percent reduction in the emissions from new cars that caused smog and carbon monoxide poisoning. At the time, it was not clear whether such a reduction could even be achieved. The auto companies railed against the law, saying that it would cost untold billions for American consumers. But by the 1975 deadline set by Congress, all new cars were equipped with catalytic converters and the standards were attained.
Since that time, EPA has worked closely with the auto industry to develop new technologies that have allowed the tailpipe standards to be tightened many, many times at reasonable cost. Today, your car is 99 percent cleaner than the car you could have bought in 1970. And there is no lead in your gasoline.
Your car, a result of these standards demanded by Congress under the Clean Air Act, is adding extra years to your life while enhancing your quality of life in so many other ways. That’s the miracle.
There is a sub-story here that needs to be examined as we struggle with global warming pollution. When cars burn gasoline, carbon dioxide is emitted. That carbon dioxide contributes to temperature increases that threaten our livelihoods and the natural environment. Nobody thought about carbon dioxide when the Clean Air Act was adopted in 1970. But Congress did recognize that California had a unique air pollution problem—and that the state had worked effectively with the auto industry to tame pollution from our cars and trucks.
While the 1970 Clean Air Act preempted the authority of states to regulate air pollution emissions from vehicles and engines, it set up a process that allowed California to apply to EPA for a waiver from the preemption if unique circumstances justified more stringent controls. And if California received a waiver and moved forward with tighter controls, other states were authorized to adopt the California standards as well. Over the past 40 years, EPA has granted many waivers to California for one vehicle/engine standard or another, and more than a dozen states have followed California’s lead on each decision. And the new technologies led by California have contributed to a steady march to cleaner air across the country.
In 2006, this well-settled and successful structure was challenged when California decided that it would regulate carbon dioxide from vehicle tailpipes to combat global warming and asked EPA for a waiver on that pollutant. The Bush Administration caused an uproar when, for the first time ever, it refused to grant California a waiver. The Administration cited the theory that global warming is not a local pollution problem, although the Clean Air Act itself does not make that distinction. California sued.
Before the suit was settled, President Obama came to office and did three things. He bailed out the auto industry that had collapsed in the Great Recession using your tax dollars. He granted California the waiver it sought to control global warming pollution. And then he worked with the states and the auto industry to adopt a unified national standard for global warming pollutants from cars and trucks extending through 2025, doubling fuel economy from 27 mpg to 54 mpg, which will save consumers billions of dollars at the pump now and far into the future.
Things have changed some since those standards were first proposed in 2009. Gasoline prices have dropped dramatically, so Americans are buying bigger cars. After a steep decline during the Recession, the number of miles we drive has also started to increase. While global warming emissions in the electric power sector have dropped dramatically over this period due to renewable energy investments and cheap natural gas, transportation emissions are growing. For the first time since 1979, transportation emissions exceeded emissions from the power sector last year. They are now our number one global warming problem. And they are on a path to get worse.
In the quest for jobs, the Trump Administration is about to reconsider the fuel economy standards that President Obama adopted. As this happens, there are two things for the rest of us to watch. First, does the automobile industry continue to produce miraculous new technologies that meet the most important environment challenges of each new era? Or do they take advantage of the political situation to retreat from a new challenge? It is one thing to make a minor midterm adjustment. It is another to abandon important national goals.
And second, will California and its partner states be allowed to continue in their role driving that technology by requiring their consumers to buy the cleanest cars the auto industry knows how to make? It is a big market—135 million Americans live in those states. And by the way, foreign automakers have to meet the same standards, so there is no negative impact on U.S. jobs in the clean car states.
It would be one of the deepest ironies of this time, if the new Administrator of the EPA—coming to office promising to let the states lead on environmental protections—undermined the California waiver, the most successful example in all of environmental law for letting states take the lead.