March 4, 2011 Liz Borkowski, MPH 5Comment

Earlier this week, the EPA released a report that quantifies costs and benefits of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments – and, surprise, surprise, the benefits substantially outweigh the costs: $2 trillion vs. $65 billion in 2020.

Specifically, The Benefits and Costs of the Clean Air Act from 1990 to 2020 evaluates the costs and benefits of programs implemented pursuant to the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, comparing today’s outcomes with what would’ve been expected had control programs remained only as stringent as they were before the 1990 changes took effect. The figures cover not only the costs and benefits we’ve seen so far, but those projected to occur between now and 2020.

In 2010 alone, the amendments’ reduction in fine particles and ozone pollution prevented more than 130,000 heart attacks and 160,000 cases of premature mortality. They also prevented the loss of 13 million workdays. In the year 2020, the benefits are predicted to be even greater: 2000,000 heart attacks, 230,000 premature deaths, and 17 million lost work days prevented.

I wanted to refresh my memory on the exact content of the amendments that save so many lives, so I went to EPA’s website. What was particularly instructive about the agency’s writeup wasn’t the content of the amendments, but the description of the process behind them:

In June 1989 President Bush proposed sweeping revisions to the Clean Air Act. Building on Congressional proposals advanced during the 1980s, the President proposed legislation designed to curb three major threats to the nation’s environment and to the health of millions of Americans: acid rain, urban air pollution, and toxic air emissions. The proposal also called for establishing a national permits program to make the law more workable, and an improved enforcement program to help ensure better compliance with the Act.

By large votes, both the House of Representatives (401-21) and the Senate (89-11) passed Clean Air bills that contained the major components of the President’s proposals. Both bills also added provisions requiring the phaseout of ozone-depleting chemicals, roughly according to the schedule outlined in international negotiations (Revised Montreal Protocol). The Senate and House bills also added specific research and development provisions, as well as detailed programs to address accidental releases of toxic air pollutants.

A joint conference committee met from July to October 1990 to iron out differences in the bills and both Houses overwhelmingly voted out the package recommended by the Conferees. The President received the Bill from Congress on November 14, 1990 and signed it on November 15,1990.

Several progressive and creative new themes are embodied in the Amendments; themes necessary for effectively achieving the air quality goals and regulatory reform expected from these far-reaching amendments. Specifically the new law:

  • encourages the use of market-based principles and other innovative approaches, like performance-based standards and emission banking and trading;
  • provides a framework from which alternative clean fuels will be used by setting standards in the fleet and California pilot program that can be met by the most cost-effective combination of fuels and technology;
  • promotes the use of clean low sulfur coal and natural gas, as well as innovative technologies to clean high sulfur coal through the acid rain program;
  • reduces enough energy waste and creates enough of a market for clean fuels derived from grain and natural gas to cut dependency on oil imports by one million barrels/day;
  • promotes energy conservation through an acid rain program that gives utilities flexibility to obtain needed emission reductions through programs that encourage customers to conserve energy.

With these themes providing the framework for the Clean Air Act amendments and with our commitment to implement the new law quickly, fairly and efficiently, Americans will get what they asked for: a healthy, productive environment, linked to sustainable economic growth and sound energy policy.

I wasn’t conscious of politics back in 1990, so maybe someone who was can tell me whether passing these amendments involved a pitched battle in which one side misleadingly accused the other of the environmental equivalent of a “death panel” (or point me towards an article that’s less whitewashed than the EPA writeup). This description makes it sound like the President and approximately 90% of Congress acknowledged a public-health problem and worked out a solution that has turned out to save hundreds of thousands of lives.

I’m sure some of those who bore large shares of the costs of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments were unhappy, but the public as a whole has derived tremendous benefits from this legislation. As EPA notes in this fact sheet, their central benefits estimate exceeds costs by a factor of more than 30 to one.

5 thoughts on “Putting Numbers on Prevention: Cutting Pollution Saves Lives

  1. Congressman Waxman has a chapter in his book about the clean air act amendments of 1990. It is a quick read and paints a picture of Bush I not throwing up major opposition — more like being outmanuavered.

  2. Liz Borkowski:

    I wasn’t conscious of politics back in 1990, so maybe someone who was can tell me whether passing these amendments involved a pitched battle in which one side misleadingly accused the other of the environmental equivalent of a “death panel” (or point me towards an article that’s less whitewashed than the EPA writeup)

    In Merchants of Doubt, science historian Naomi Oreskes points out that many of the same think tanks and pseudoscientists that spread misinformation about global warming also spread misinformation about the ozone hole, about acid rain, acid rain, and about smoking.

  3. And yet I’m confident that many of the politicians who now rail against EPA regulations will say that the data does not represent the volume of business, manufacturing, jobs, etc. that went to foreign countries where they don’t have stringent, enforced regulations.

    I’m sure there are better solutions than reducing ourselves to the same level of pollution and regulation as the developing world, though.

  4. The successful implementation of the 1990 Clean Air Act was possible because there were either reasonable technical fixes available such as on the shelf pollution control technology or easily developed substitutes available such as refrigerent substitutes. Environmental regulation works when problems are tractable or made tractable through innovative enforcement design. CAFE standards were easy targets because fuel injection got you part of the way there and for pollutant reduction the development of catalytic converters were simply rearangements of existing technologies.

    Today there is some question whether micro pollutants or very fine particulate matter in the air has a tractable solution. So too, GHG emissions whose abatement is largely intractable at the moment because it requires a shift to nuclear power for electricity generation which is a generational solution. Replacing the auto fleet with a different mix of vehicles is a 10 to 15 year process.

    I think my greatest concern with these new regulations or regulatory direction is that successful implementation is more dependent on technological breakthroughs and longer diffusion times than were the regulations passed after 1970.

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