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SMOG BUSTING RUN AMOK : The federal EPA seeks to impose regulations that threaten to alienate Clinton's natural allies

August 21, 1994|David Friedman | David Friedman, director of the New Economy Project, writes frequently on regional and technology issues

Mayor Richard Riordan's 11th-hour request that the Air Quality Management District delay its vote to impose Draconian air-pollution regulations on Southern California high lights yet another example of the Clinton Administration's inexplicable anti-urban bi as. The newly invigorated Environmental Protection Agency is forcing local officials to adopt severe, ill-conceived measures that will hurt the nation's struggling urban economies while encouraging population and industrial migrations into precisely those less-urbanized regions where Bill Clinton is most virulently opposed.

Nowhere is this self-destructive tendency more apparent than in the EPA's takeover, earlier this year, of Southern California's air-pollution control efforts.

Before federal intervention, there were many positive trends in local air-pollution abatement. The AQMD was curbing its worst regulatory excesses, weighing more carefully the economic costs and effectiveness of its clean-up efforts while promoting a "user-friendly" image. In conjunction with local companies, novel measures were developed, such as pollution credits, and the region initiated a 30-year, $184-billion mass-transit program. Despite rapid population growth during the last two decades, Los Angeles has led the nation in improving its air quality.

None of this was good enough for the EPA. After losing a lawsuit alleging that it had not enforced federal air-pollution laws, the agency announced, in February, that it was developing federal implementation plans, or FIPs, for areas of the country that failed to meet Clean Air Act standards. Starting with California, the FIPs would mandate anti-pollution measures that could be substituted for local plans, such as those developed by the AQMD, at the EPA's own discretion.

Warily watched by other urban officials, the results in Southern California shocked even the most jaded observers of federal excess. During public hearings last month, the Administration unveiled a 1,700-page plan--about 400 pages longer than its abandoned health plan--to regulate, for the first time in history, everything that could possibly contaminate the air: interstate and international commerce, automobiles, trucks, ships, railroads, airplanes, factories, zero-emission vehicles, offices, retail businesses, mass transit, commuters, road construction, aerosol sprays, pesticides, pleasure vehicles, lawn mowers, farm equipment and back-yard barbecues.

The FIP's 106 measures include novel, untested requirements to tax domestic and international ships and airlines up to $10,000 per ton of emissions they generate; mandatory "no-drive" days for residents and businesses; diesel-truck engine standards that are presently unattainable, coupled with harsh fines for companies whose fleets fail to comply; the retrofitting and downsizing of commercial vehicles; limits on the deliveries that out-of-state trucks can make in the region, and severe agricultural-equipment restrictions.

Even proponents of the FIP--and the now closely related AQMD plan that stirred Riordan's anxiety--admit that it will strip more than 100,000 jobs from the local economy and cost $4 billion to $6 billion a year over 16 years.

But the real costs are almost certainly higher. The environmental agency concedes that 60 of its proposed measures cannot be quantified. Independent appraisals of the FIP transportation and agricultural mandates alone amount to $192 billion and $257 billion, respectively. Other industry experts estimate a 40%-to-60% decline in Los Angeles' airline, port and trucking industries by 2005, far more than the government predicts.

Even with such staggering commercial, employment and social costs, it is far from clear that the proposals will clear the air. Decreasing the size of trucks, for example, could generate more pollution by increasing the number of trips required to move the same amount of freight. The FIP also mandates emission reductions that the EPA concedes it doesn't know how to achieve.

Ironically, the EPA's plan encourages and reinforces the dispersion of high-wage, high-skill urban industries to peripheral regions of the country, fostering pollution where it is not currently a problem. As cities like Los Angeles become economically untenable, families and businesses flood into ecologically sensitive, pristine regions, including the Sierra Nevada foothills, where 8 million Californians now live, or into the intermountain west. This spreads environmentally harmful industrial and urban development problems to some of the most sensitive and least-monitored parts of the nation. And, by strengthening peripheral regions at the expense of major cities, the Administration alienates its natural political allies in favor of Nevada, Utah or North Carolina, where the President's approval ratings are measured in single digits, or the low teens.

How could such perverse results be possible?

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