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THE ENVIRONMENT

Ignore All Doomsayers on EPA Laws

December 01, 1996|Gregg Easterbrook | Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor to the Atlantic Monthly. His most recent book is "A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism" (Viking)

BRUSSELS — Last week's environmental news was as if a time tunnel had opened to 1970, spilling headlines from that year onto today's pages. The federal government proposed strict new regulations for smog reduction, something that first happened in 1970. And, just as in 1970, nearly all reaction was pessimistic. Environmental activists declared that thickening smog was choking the skies, a menace to life. Corporate leaders decreed the new goals to be wild-eyed idealism, requiring impossible technology and sure to bankrupt industry. Politicians expressed alarm over runaway regulations.

Time-tunnel calibration note: Despite gloomy predictions, the first round of federal anti-smog rules, proposed on 1970, turned out to work surprisingly well at affordable cost. Ditto for the strengthened rules that followed in 1977 and 1990. And so, too, will the rules the Environmental Protection Agency proposed Wednesday. Yes, of course the proposal will be revealed to contain some paragraph of hieroglyphic regulatory unintelligibility or some detail that all parties will soon come to wish they had never heard of. But the essential fact is: Every previous major initiative to clean the air has been a success.

All forms of air pollution, including urban smog, have declined dramatically in the United States during the past 25 years. The air in big cities, including Los Angeles, has not been getting worse, as the green doomsday crowd loves to say, but growing notably cleaner. Overall, Los Angeles smog has declined by about 40% since 1970, even as the human population of the Basin has soared and the car population has almost tripled. As recently as 1988, Los Angeles experienced 148 days of smog-danger warnings. By 1992 that number had fallen to 42 days; by last year, to just 14.

Nationally, acid rain has declined by more than 50% since 1970; other forms of air pollution have fallen even faster. The number of people living in areas with significant violations of federal air-quality standards has declined by more than half in the past decade alone. There is absolutely no cause for alarm or pessimism about air-pollution trends. They are positive and have been for some time. Stricter new rules will accelerate the positive trend.

Equally important, declines in air pollution have been achieved without material sacrifice or harm to anyone's life style. Adjusted for inflation, the gross domestic product today is more than double what it was in 1970. Employment has grown about 60% through the period, faster than growth in the labor force. Standards of living have risen for most of the population. In other words, air pollution has gone down sharply during the same period in which the country's economic vibrancy has increased.

Environmental regulations have not crippled the nation--as the conservative doomsday crowd loves to say. They've been making the nation safer, healthier and stronger.

Rapid progress against smog has been realized because technical innovations have cut pollution on nearly all fronts. Advanced tailpipe controls now allow new cars to emit less than 2% as much pollution, per mile traveled, as 1970 models. These controls started out complicated and undependable, but are now so reliable most drivers have forgotten they're there. When requirements for tailpipe controls were first imposed in 1970, auto makers called them impossible, or predicted a cost of $5,000 per car. Instead, they cost a few hundred dollars.

Numerous other air-pollution initiatives have been cheaper and more effective than projected. New acid-rain controls, imposed in 1990, were projected to cost $6 billion annually. Instead, they are costing about $1 billion, while cutting acid rain faster than expected. Overall, the Clean Air Act of 1990 was projected by the Bush administration, its sponsor, to cost $19 billion per year. Industry groups said the true figure would be $40 billion, while conservative commentators predicted an instant "clean-air recession." Instead, the cost of the 1990 rules is probably running less than $10 billion per year, while the economy is steadily growing.

Industry has a lengthy track record of asserting that whatever new ecological rule is proposed represents the last straw. That's what is being said of the anti-smog rules, and it's no more likely to prove true than the last 28,000 times it was said.

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