This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Clean Air Act (CAA), the preeminent federal law enacted by Congress in 1970 to combat air pollution. The CAA defines the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) responsibilities for protecting and improving the nation’s air quality. According to EPA, since 1970 the six commonly found air pollutants have decreased by more than 50 percent, while air toxics from large industrial sources have been reduced by nearly 70 percent. EPA’s “Plain English Guide to the Clean Air Act” provides additional information on the history and accomplishments of this seminal public law.
In 1990, Congress expanded CAA authority, and today EPA is looking to build on the law’s success by taking numerous regulatory actions to significantly expand its reach. Case in point: last October (2009) EPA finalized a rule to require mandatory reporting of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from large sources. In December 2009, EPA determined that GHGs threaten the public health and environment (so-called "Endangerment Finding"), paving the way for regulation of GHGs under the CAA. This action has been followed by efforts to cut GHG emissions and improve fuel efficiency for cars and trucks and a “Tailoring Rule” designed to ensure that only the largest stationary sources of GHGs will be required to include such emissions in their CAA permits.
These actions are not without controversy – EPA is facing numerous lawsuits alleging that the Clean Air Act is not the appropriate “fit” for regulating GHGs. However, in the absence of congressional action to address climate change comprehensively via legislation, EPA continues to press forward on the regulatory front. And while EPA’s actions undoubtedly are well-intentioned, there is a real concern among businesses that the costs of complying with these regulations will create greater uncertainty and hinder further growth in the current economic climate.
It is hard to deny the success of the Clean Air Act during the first 40 years of its existence. What will the next 40 years bring, and will these current proposals be successful in achieving their aims without decimating economic growth? Hopefully it won't be 2050 before we know for sure.