The U.S. has some of the cleanest air in the world, thanks to decades of steady progress that has persisted across Democratic and Republican administrations, as well as across EPA budget expansions and cuts. The EPA standard for fine particulate matter is more than twice as strict as Europe’s. The agency’s standard for ozone is so strict that some national parks exceed it and President Obama initially rejected it. While environmental activists will always demand larger budgets and tighter standards, Americans can rest assured that they will continue to benefit from outstanding air quality in the years to come.
If anything, now might seem an appropriate time to pause the tightening of the Clean Air Act's new-source ratchet and encourage industry to expand under the requirements applied to existing facilities. The World Health Organization reports that the average fine particulate matter concentration of 8.3 micrograms per cubic meter puts it just above the levels in Iceland (7.6) and New Zealand (8.0) and far below levels in comparable industrialized countries like France (12.1), the United Kingdom (12.2), Germany (13.5), and Japan (14.6). Levels in London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Berlin all violate the U.S. standard; Brussels would be the dirtiest city in America.
Some critics view Pruitt's lawsuits as 'anti-EPA,' but that is not how the American constitutional system works. The EPA said it had authority under the law, Pruitt (acting on behalf of Oklahoma) said it didn't, and the Supreme Court sided with Pruitt. He plainly understands the EPA's role at least as well as its own prior leaders did, if not better. Now, as EPA administrator, he won't have to pursue years of litigation to keep the EPA's behavior within its legal limits; he will have that control himself.
It’s time for a fresh look at U.S. energy and environmental policy. An agenda that maximizes the potential of America’s natural resources while striking a better balance between industry and environmental protection could unleash substantial economic growth and job creation at no cost to taxpayers. Here are four steps that Congress and the new Trump administration can take.
Our current model of regulation resembles a game of darts, in which we hope to equip (or constrain, depending on one's point of view) the regulator with tools to ensure he strikes a hypothetical bulls-eye that maximizes welfare. But this produces a central-planning regime in which the policymakers deny the existence of tradeoffs, claiming they can achieve their regulatory goals while simultaneously improving on the market's economic outcomes. There is no such bulls-eye in the real world, and even if there were, the regulators would not hit it anyway.
If we revisit the economic-environmental balance that our policies strike in light of the economic and environmental conditions we now face, we will find great opportunities for a rebalancing that preserves progress made while pursuing the economic growth we need.
The clean Air Act, by virtue of decisions made and priorities chosen decades ago, is forcing Americans to accept substantial economic sacrifices that they cannot afford, in pursuit of environmental gains that they do not need and that are not worth the cost. Through sheer inertia it is continuing to tighten the screws on industry and energy in pursuit of ever greater environmental quality, even though the broad consensus supporting such a tradeoff has disintegrated and most Americans today see the former as a greater concern than the latter.