If the Clean Air Act were human, it would now be entering middle age.
But while the statute has moved into a strange new phase of life with the Obama administration using it to take on the daunting challenge of climate change, there's no reason for a midlife crisis, current and former U.S. EPA officials said yesterday during a symposium honoring the statute's 40th birthday.
Since the passage of the Clean Air Act, EPA's regulations have produced $40 in public health and environmental benefits for every $1 they have cost the economy, Administrator Lisa Jackson told an audience of agency veterans, business leaders and environmental advocates. The statute has been "particularly effective at proving lobbyists wrong," she said.
"Say what you want about EPA's business sense," Jackson said, "but we certainly know how to get a return on our investment."
Speakers predicted that the agency will face an unprecedented struggle in its effort to address heat-trapping carbon dioxide, which one longtime official described as the "mother of all pollutants." Still, many were optimistic that the private sector will find solutions.
Bill Ruckelshaus, who was appointed by Richard Nixon as EPA's first administrator, reminisced about the intensity of business opposition at the beginning of his tenure. When he spoke before an audience of automotive industry executives at the Detroit Economic Club, Ruckelshaus said, he was introduced as "the best friend of American industry since Karl Marx."
But the invention of the catalytic converter allowed the auto industry to comply with EPA's first standards on emissions from cars. When the agency phased out refrigerants that were depleting the ozone layer, new technology was developed, so the predicted shutdown of freezers and air conditioning units never happened.
"The Clean Air Act has caused enormous positive effects on this society," Ruckelshaus said. "It has cost us money, yes, and it has resulted in an intrusion into a manufacturing process that certainly to say the least was not used to that kind of governmental intrusion, but the effect on public health has been overwhelming."
During a program spent reflecting on the successes and challenges of the Clean Air Act, it remained clear that fears of economic harm will continue. Decrying the significant burden of climate rules at a time of economic suffering, a coalition of 24 business groups pressured EPA yesterday by urging appropriators in both houses of Congress to put the brakes on the agency's regulations.
The letter, signed by groups such as the American Chemistry Council, the American Petroleum Institute and the National Association of Manufacturers, asked for a two- or three-year delay on stationary sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
The Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday canceled a vote on EPA's budget that had been scheduled for tomorrow. Critics of greenhouse gas regulations were expected to introduce amendments limiting or delaying the agency's climate rules (E&ENews PM, Sept. 14).
"State implementing agencies have no guidance on issuing the required permits, the measures needed to comply are not known, and both state implementing agencies and covered commercial facilities will be left in a bind," the letter to the Senate spending panel said. "There is the very real prospect that investments by businesses across the entire economy -- the investments that will drive economic recovery and job creation -- will be delayed, curtailed or, even worse, cancelled."
Permitting guidelines due 'shortly'
Jackson refuted predictions from industries and some state officials that greenhouse gas permitting requirements will cripple industries and spark a regulatory nightmare.
Starting in January, EPA will require some industrial sources to install the "best available control technology," or BACT, to curb their emissions under the Clean Air Act's New Source Review program, but states and industries are still waiting for guidance from the agency about what that will be for various sectors.
"A guidance document that EPA will issue shortly will assist states and the small number of sources covered in completing the permitting process in a manner that is practical and manageable," Jackson said yesterday.
State regulatory authorities will use the guidance to determine how new stationary sources and those proposing upgrades will need to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. Many observers expect the guidance to promote new efficiency standards, as opposed to recommending fuel-switching or as-yet-unproven control technologies.
Despite the fears of industry, EPA will avoid taking a "reckless and irresponsible" approach to climate regulations, Jackson said.
"Today's forecasts of economic doom are almost identical, word for word, to the doomsday predictions of the last 40 years," she said. "This broken record continues despite the fact that history has proven the doomsayers wrong again and again."
Click here to read the letter to appropriators.
Reporter Robin Bravender contributed.