Will President Obama Compromise Public Health Protections?

Obama-Clean Air Act-EPA-compromisePresident Obama is considering a compromise with Republicans that would curtail Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authority to regulate air pollutants harmful to public health.  For months Republicans and some conservative Democrats in Congress have been pushing to roll back the EPA’s ability to enforce the Clean Air Act.  Conservatives have attempted to pass anti-EPA measures by attaching them to the federal budget bill, as well as by introducing separate legislation to reduce or eliminate EPA authority. 

Now news that President Obama is considering a compromise with Republicans has health advocates worried about the fate of one of the nation’s most important environmental laws.  “The President must not sacrifice the health of our children and communities,” said Sarah Hodgdon, Conservation Director for the Sierra Club.  “He must not succumb to Big Oil and Coal and their cronies in Congress.”

Originally passed by Congress in 1970 with bipartisan support, the Clean Air Act helped clear America’s skies of the worst side effects of industrialization.  The law mandates the federal Environmental Protection Agency place limits on what levels of pollution are acceptable from a public health perspective, and requires the agency to come up with rules for preventing pollution.  According to the EPA, Clean Air Act regulations are estimated to have prevented 130,000 heart attacks, 1.7 cases of asthma, and 160,000 premature deaths last year alone.

Yet a surprising number of dangerous pollutants remain largely unregulated by the EPA.  Amendments to the Clean Air Act passed in 1990 stipulated the EPA reduce toxic emissions not originally covered under the Clean Air Act, such as mercury, lead, and arsenic from power plants.  However these rules were delayed from going into effect for two decades, and the agency is only just now moving to implement the new standards. 

The EPA is also acting for the first time ever to place limits on carbon and greenhouse gases, after a Supreme Court Ruling that emissions which contribute to global warming qualify as a threat to public health.  Almost all the new rules are being targeted by conservatives, who say regulating pollution unnecessarily hinders the oil and coal industries.  President Obama originally pledged to protect the Clean Air Act and stand up for EPA authority, but now environmental groups worry he may be caving to Republican pressure.

Last year Congress failed to pass a national climate policy to limit greenhouse gases, and meanwhile international negotiations have failed to produce a binding global climate treaty.  The existing Clean Air Act therefore remains the best tool in the United States for curbing carbon and other emissions from dirty coal plants, oil refineries, and automobile tailpipes.  By enforcing the Clean Air Act, the federal government could trigger a dramatic shift away from dirty fossil fuels and to cleaner sources of energy, even without any new action from Congress.  If President Obama bargains away that power, environmental and health groups will have lost their most promising tool for averting catastrophic climate change. 

“If the biggest polluters and their allies in Congress get their way,” said the Center for Biological Diversity in an email to supporters, “the EPA will be prevented from implementing the Clean Air Act to reduce dangerous carbon dioxide pollution that will permanently alter our climate.”

Few details have emerged about what kind of deal with Republicans the president might be considering.  However conservative proposals for reducing EPA authority include completely eliminating the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon emissions, or delaying carbon regulations for as long as two years.  Other proposals focus on preventing the EPA from adopting strong standards to limit mercury, lead, and other toxic air pollutants from power plants.

Photo credit: “keith011764” on Flickr

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