Center for Progressive Reform

Clean Air

Fighting for Clean Air

Dirty air kills. Thousands of Americans die each year from causes related to air pollution, and many more become sick. Despite progress in the fight against air pollution, we still have a very long way to go. The principal law governing air pollution is the Clean Air Act. Passed in 1970 in response to growing public concerns about visible and unhealthy levels of air pollution, the law enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support. It boldly sought to eliminate the negative health effects of air pollution for all American citizens by 1975. Despite some success in addressing many of the worst pollution problems, more than 30 years after that target date, Americans in large parts of the country still breathe air that produces negative health effects, including death.

The Clean Air Act's Unfulfilled Promise

Among the Clean Air Act's many provisions is one that requires the Environmental Protection Agency to control smog by periodically reviewing recent scientific evidence and then setting maximum acceptable levels for ground level ozone. More specifically, the law calls for reviews every five years, but the Bush Administration managed to let a 1997 standard go unaddressed for a full 11 years, before finally proposing a standard so feeble that EPA's scientific advisory panel deemed unhealthy.

Environmental organizations brought suit against EPA to force it to follow the science and produce a stricter standard. Enter President Obama, whose EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, managed to negotiate a halt to the lawsuits by promising that EPA would issue a new standard by 2010. EPA missed the deadline, but did in July 2011 send a new and tighter standard to the White Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (Cass Sunstein's office) for approval. There followed a series of meetings between OIRA and industry, some of which were joined by White House Chief of Staff William Daley. Finally on September 2, 2011, President Obama announced that he had directed EPA to withdraw the new standards and to wait until 2013 to issue new ones, meaning that the 1997 standard will remain in effect until at least then. EPA's scientists estimate that this more permissive standard will cost several thousand Americans their lives each year.

CPR Member Scholars protested what many called a "capitulation" by the President.  Read op-eds by Rena Steinzor (Baltimore Sun), David Driesen (Syracuse Post-Standard), and Thomas McGarity (Houston Chronicle), and see several Member Scholar blog posts

Learn more about CPR Member Scholars’ work to make sure all Americans have clean air to breathe:

  • Veto Power for the Secretary of Energy. Rena Steinzor's April 12, 2013 testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on the Energy Consumers Relief Act, a bill that would give the Secretary of Energy power to veto EPA regulations affecting energy.
  • Energy Efficiency. Read States Can Lead the Way to Improved Appliance Energy Efficiency Standards, CPR White Paper 1210, August 2012, by CPR Member Scholars Alexandra B. Klass and Lesley K. McAllister, and CPR Policy Analyst Wayland Radin. Read the introductory blog post.
  • Mintz Testimony on Enforcement. Read Joel Mintz's June 6, 2012 testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power on EPA's enforcement record during the Obama years.
  • International Treaties. Read Reclaiming Global Environmental Leadership: Why the United States Should Ratify Ten Pending Environmental Treaties, CPR White Paper 1201.
  • Obama's Ozone Retreat. In September 2011, President Obama scuttled an effort by EPA to tighten the nation's standards for ozone pollution. Read op-eds by Rena Steinzor (Baltimore Sun), David Driesen (Syracuse Post-Standard), andThomas McGarity (Houston Chronicle), and several Member Scholar blog posts protesting the move.
  • Myths About CAA Regulation of Greenhouse Gases.  For years, the Bush Administration resisted regulating the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, asserting (among other things) that it lacked the authority under the Clean Air Act to do so. The Supreme Court finally instructed the Administration otherwise, a ruling the Bush White House all but ignored. The Obama Administration, however, has sought to discharge its legal obligation to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. Somehow, the right wing argument that the Clean Air Act doesn't cover planet-threatening greenhouse gases persists, however. In April 2011, CPR Member Scholars Amy Sinden and Dan Farber released a short white paper, correcting the record on Six Myths About Climate Change and the Clean Air Act (CPR White Paper 1105).
  • Coal Ash. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs' (OIRA) extended review of EPA's 2009 proposal to regulate coal ash is a case study in what's wrong with the regulatory review process.  OIRA violated the executive order establishing its authority to review regulations by missing its deadlines, then imposed on EPA an alternative, watered-down, regulation, and then saddled EPA's original proposal with a cost-benefit analysis that would make it all but impossible for EPA to describe plainly hazardous coal ash as a hazard.  Read CPR Member Scholar Rena Steinzor's 2010 comments on EPA's proposal and OIRA's role in the process.  Read the news release. Also read a July 24, 2013 blog post from Michael Patoka, Ash Time Goes By: Administration Continues Foot-Dragging on Coal Ash Rule as Toxic Landfills and Ash Ponds Grow by 94 Million Tons Each Year.
  • OIRA and Cockroaches? Read Rena Steinzor's August 30, 2010 testimony before an EPA panel conducting regional hearings on regulating coal ash, in which she explains why the supposedly "irrational" refusal of human test subjects to drink a glass of water from which a cockroach had just been removed is at the heart of OIRA's extraordinary rationale for tilting a cost-benefit analysis against regulating coal ash.
  • IRIS. Read about efforts to get EPA to update its IRIS database, a gateway to regulating dozens of toxic chemicals already in commerce.
  • The California Waiver. Read William W. Buzbee's December 28, 2007 op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the Bush EPA's denial of California's request for a Clean Air Act waiver that would allow it and 16 "piggybacking" states to fight global warming with stricter automobile emissions standards.
  • Houston Air Pollution. The Houston Petrochemical Complex churns out pollution that endangers public health, and in particular, threatens the health of nearby residents.  Read more.
  • Federal Failure on Clean Air. Bush Administration efforts to relax ozone regulations and cut funding for state grants for pollution inspectors took a toll on the quality of the air Americans breathe. In a joint report with the Center for American Progress, CPR's Rena Steinzor and Margaret Clune Giblin document the resulting shortage of inspectors in 10 of the nation's 11 most populous states. In each of the states, more than half of the population – in New Jersey the entire population – live in counties that fail EPA's air quality standards. Read the November 2006 report, "Paper Tigers and Killer Air: How Weak Enforcement Leaves Communities Vulnerable to Smog" (1.5 meg download) and the news release (355 kb download).
  • A CPR Perspective. CPR Member Scholars have authored articles on related topics, as part of the CPR Perspectives Series. These include Perspectives on Emissions Trading, Mercury, and New Source Review.
  • Mercury. As many as 1 in 12 women of child-bearing age in the United States have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood. CPR works to strengthen existing restrictions on mercury pollution by power plants, chlor-alkali plants, and others. Read about CPR Member Scholars’ work on behalf of vigorous regulation of mercury pollution.
  • Trading Credits. One approach to curbing air pollution that has gained political traction in recent years is the creation of pollution credit-trading markets. CPR’s Member Scholars have warned that the approach is not universally applicable. Read what they’ve had to say about credit-trading proposals, here.


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