Clean Air Act Faces Threats

February 1, 2011- Nick Engelfried

Many leading environmental groups in the United States are gearing up for a giant fight to preserve the effectiveness of the Clean Air Act, one of the nation’s most important environmental laws.  With this year’s more conservative Congress meaning the United States is unlikely to pass national climate legislation anytime soon, the existing Clean Air Act holds potential to help reduce carbon emissions and other pollutants produced by burning fossil fuels.  The catch is industry lobbyists and their supporters in Congress are even now attempting to reduce the landmark law’s impact and weaken the agency responsible for enforcing it. 

Under the Clean Air Act, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has authority to tighten pollution limits in order to bring the law in line with the latest findings on how air pollutants affect public health.  New standards for mercury, nitrous oxides, and other compounds could increase the cost of burning coal to polluters, prompting a shift to cleaner and increasingly cheap renewable energy sources.  This year the EPA is also using its authority to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases for the first time in an effort to counter the health impacts of climate change.

Republicans and some Democrats in Congress have threatened to introduce legislation that would delay or prevent new Clean Air Act regulations from taking effect.  Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) has already proposed delaying EPA rules on greenhouse emissions for as much as two years, effectively postponing action on climate change.  With fossil fuel companies pushing hard to get out of these and other upcoming regulations, the fight over the Clean Air Act will be long and fierce in 2011. 

Challenges to the authority of the Clean Air Act are not new.  Last year Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced a resolution in the US Senate intended to prevent the EPA from curbing greenhouse gas emissions.  This legislation never made it through the Senate, and similar proposals gained even less traction in the US House of Representatives.  However things are different this year, largely because of electoral victories for Republicans last November.  Conservatives now hold a majority in the House of Representatives, and made important gains in the Senate as well.  It is therefore much more likely a proposal that limits EPA authority or curtails the Clean Air Act could move forward.

“It is tragic that in the face of rapid escalation of climate change and the occurrence of extreme weather events, not only will congress take no action to address climate pollution; they are actively working to undermine the agency with the greatest ability to make a difference,” said Elijah Zarlin of the CREDO Action Network, which campaigns for progressive causes in the US. 

Yet while environmental groups have reason to be worried, it is by no means clear conservatives can get legislation which weakens the Clean Air Act through the Senate.  Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has criticized attempts to delay Clean Air Act rules and says she doesn’t believe such proposals could make it into law.  President Obama still has the authority to veto a law that would curtail or delay new EPA regulations, and the likelihood of Congress mustering the votes to overcome a veto is very small.  Meanwhile efforts to weaken the Clean Air Act could prove very unpopular with voters, who still tend to see the law as essential for protecting public health.   

A strong public outcry could ensure the Clean Air Act stays intact and that the EPA retains full authority to enforce it.  Groups like the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, and many others are already mobilizing their members to defend new clean air rules and ensure proposals to weaken them do not move through Congress.  Though the outcome is far from certain, the clash of public health advocates with the fossil fuel industries could easily prove the most important environmental story of 2011.

Photo credit: Marcy Reiford

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