Dirty Dealing on Clean Air

Despite the fact that most Americans think the environment has gotten dramatically better in their lifetimes, the air in 31 states fails to meet federal health standards for smog. I"m breathing some of that bad air myself, since my county is one of the failures. In the Northeast, where I live, you"ll have a hard time getting a decent breath of air in New York City, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Newark, Bridgeport and Baltimore. The other problem areas, according to the American Lung Association, include:

½The Southeast: Atlanta, Birmingham, Knoxville, Louisville, Charleston, Raleigh-Durham and Winston-Salem;

½The Midwest: Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Detroit;

½The Southwest: Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Phoenix;

½The West: Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno, Eugene, Seattle, Provo and Salt Lake City.

Looking for clean air, cities with low levels of ground-level ozone? Try Ames, Iowa, Bellingham, Washington, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Here"s a complete list of the good, bad and ugly.

At the root of the problem are big coal-burning power plants and a growing number of car exhausts. Critics say the Bush administration"s Environmental Protection Agency has largely abdicated its responsibility to enforce the Clean Air Act, advocating a self-regulation for polluters known as "New Source Review." Some of EPA"s more dedicated true believers have quit in disgust. One former official, Bruce Buckheit, says, "If we were still enforcing the Clean Air Act the way it should be enforced, I would still be there."

Frank O"Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust, says, "It’s disappointing to note that tens of millions of Americans are still breathing dirty air more than three decades after the 1970 Clean Air Act became law. We also continue to have a significant problem with toxic air pollutants such as benzene emitted by motor vehicles. We have made—and continue to make—significant progress in cleaning up cars. We have made less progress with electric power plants and big diesel sources of pollution, including trucks, buses and heavy equipment. If we simply enforced the Clean Air Act responsibly, we could make massive reductions in pollution from power plants."

Every day I drive past an ancient coal-burning power plant whose technology dates back to the 1950s. It burns coal because coal is cheap, and the law isn"t going to force its owners to switch to something cleaner.

Of course, vehicle exhaust is part of the same toxic cloud, not only affecting local air quality but also contributing mightily to global warming. In the absence of federal action, states are taking the lead. A California regulation, passed in 2002 and backed enthusiastically by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, requires automakers to cut emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) by as much as 30 percent over the next 10 years. Carmakers would have to make their fleets far more fuel-efficient, because that"s the only way to reduce CO2 emissions.

It"s not surprising that automakers are talking about suing, just as they sued to stop the state"s zero-emissions provisions (which have now spread to Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, Maine, New Jersey and Connecticut).The industry"s allies are trying to turn fuel economy into a jobs issue. Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot said recently that if Democrat John Kerry"s proposed higher economy standards went into effect, the key battleground state of Michigan would "lose 105,000 jobs." That"s a very specific number! But according to the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, Racicot"s statement was in fact a misstatement of a two-year old study conducted at General Motors" request. The job loss estimate was actually national, not for Michigan alone.

Daniel Lashof, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that raising fuel-economy standards would not only decrease oil consumption by four million barrels per day (by 2020), but would also create jobs developing alternative technology. "Building clean and efficient vehicles in the U.S. is something we should commit to in order to prevent losing jobs to European and Japanese automakers," he told the Michigan Land Use Institute.

I look at the Honda Civic Hybrid, with its comfortable seating for five, great fuel economy and ultra-low emissions, and wonder why it isn"t sitting happily in every driveway. You don"t need to be an environmentalist to worry about global warming anymore. Really, some very respectable people are concerned. No less an authority than Ron Oxburgh of Shell Oil recently commented, "No one can be comfortable at the prospect of continuing to pump out the amounts of CO2 that we are at present
.I"m really very worried for the planet."