The Cost Of Clean Air: Should Limits Be Put On The EPA?

10 November 2000

By Stentor Danielson

You're off the hook -- I'm not going to write about the election this week. For those of you in the Colgate bubble, Republican George W. Bush is unofficially the 43rd President of the United States, pending a recount in Florida, and Hillary Clinton is New York's newest Senator. While the executive and legislative branches were asking for the votes of the 51 percent of Americans who care who their leaders are, the judicial branch was hard at work.

This week, the Supreme Court hears arguments in American Trucking Associations v. Browner and Browner v. American Trucking Associations. The Trucking Associations are upset that improving the environment isn't free. Specifically, they think the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should have taken their compliance costs into account when they lowered permissible ozone levels from .12 to .08 parts per million. In focussing on their own pocketbooks, the Trucking Associations have forgotten the cost to everyone of non-compliance with EPA standards.

When the 1970 Clean Air Act was passed, the intent was to remove politics from public health concerns. The EPA would decide what standards needed to be upheld in order to reduce the risks to human life and livelihood caused by pollution. That way, the quality of our air -- which, 30 years later, is still dangerously poor in some areas -- would not be subject to the whims and panderings of legislators looking to grab a few votes. Public health, as defined by scientists, rather than politicians with ulterior motives, was to be paramount.

The Trucking Associations say that Congress gave the EPA too much room to set standards without concern over whether they grind America's economy into bankruptcy to do it. They point out that no standard short of zero pollution is risk-free, so there is already an implicit cost-benefit analysis in the EPA's decisions over what standards to raise and how much to raise them.

It is true that the EPA considers costs already. But for the Court to agree with the Trucking Associations and force the EPA to explicitly consider the possible detrimental impact on industry would change the balance of costs in a way detrimental to the spirit of the Clean Air Act. The problem is, not all costs can be easily measured in money. The Trucking Association and its supporters would enjoy a decided advantage in explicit cost-benefit analysis because they can draw up figures for new vehicles, more efficient fuels and so on to make the case against stricter standards.

The Clean Air Act specifies that the EPA should "protect the public health," by setting standards that "accurately reflect the latest scientific knowledge." Harm to the public health is clearly a cost of lax standards. If the Trucking Associations want to lay out their compliance costs, then the EPA would also have to put a number to the health cost of higher pollution.

The health effects are no so easy to calculate. Hospital charges, doctor's visits, drug purchases (both prescription and over-the-counter), and the drain on Medicare and Medicaid are the easiest. Then there are the losses in productivity from less healthy workers, and loss of tourism and retail revenue from people avoiding smoggy city streets to protect their own lungs. And what price do you put on lives lost from diseases and complications caused by pollution?

It might be possible to put a number on the health risks of pollution. But that number will be nowhere near as secure as industries' tallying of their costs. And so, in the great American policymaking tradition, they will quibble. "Would doctors really charge that much?" "Isn't City A's population going down?" "People won't really stay home that much just because of smog." Even if the costs of lax standards are clearly more than industry's compliance costs, industry will stall for time and let our public health foot the bill. This kind of lobbying and dealmaking reintroduces politics into the decision, even if our political leaders keep their hands off.

The result would be an EPA whose hands are tied by bickering over numbers. And the less the EPA is able to do for us, the easier it will be for President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress to label the agency an example of wasteful big government. Bush no doubt remembers that his few environmental "accomplishments" as Governor of Texas were crammed down his throat by the EPA. And then comes the cut in the EPA's funding, perhaps to finance a tax cut for the trucking industry.

The Trucking Associations clearly think their compliance costs under the EPA's new rules outweigh the benefits we all gain from cleaner air. If the Supreme Court agrees, perhaps we ought to begin forwarding pollution victims' bills to American Trucking Associations' headquarters. Then we'll see how much the new standards cost.

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