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40 Years Later, Clean Air Act Remains Hot-Button Issue

As EPA invokes law to reduce emissions, industry readies for a fight.

Few might recall, but back in 1970, when legislation was being debated in Congress on federal restrictions on the amount of pollutants that could be emitted into the air, a firestorm of controversy ensued.

Now, four decades later, the Clean Air Act is remembered as one of the most consequential pieces of environmental and health legislation in American history. But it also remains a lightning rod political issue today, as the Environmental Protection Agency is invoking the law as a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Industry wasnt exactly celebrating the Clean Air Acts 40th birthday, but Lisa P. Jackson, the EPAs administrator, defended the law at a symposium in Washington on Sept. 15.

According to Jackson, industry lobbyists have created the false impression for decades now that the Clean Air Act would bankrupt companies, create massive layoffs and cost billions to comply with. But each of those predictions have been proven wrong, she said, because the inherent value of the law has been in the lives saved each year.

Jackson estimates that the Clean Air Act has returned $40 in health and environmental benefits for each dollar in compliance cost. Say what you want about EPAs business sense, but we certainly know how to get a return on our investment, she said.

Since 1990, she said emissions of six common pollutants are down 41% while gross domestic product grew 64%. Since 1980, she said lead levels in the air dropped 92%, helping to greatly reduce the number of children with IQs below 70.

That said, industry lobbyists are extremely skeptical about the EPAs plans to use the law to address greenhouse gas emissions and now it appears Congress might be readying to oppose its efforts as well. Both the House and Senate have bipartisan legislation being written that would impose a two-year moratorium on the EPAs ability to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Even if Congress were to pass these measures, it is believed that President Obama would issue a veto.

Meanwhile, industry groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are suing the EPA, saying the agency has no authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

Industrys resistance comes as no surprise, said Jackson, but so many of the fears associated with regulating greenhouse gas emissions are the same as those associated with the Clean Air Act over the last 40 years.

We arent going to fall victim to another round of trumped-up doomsday predictions, said Jackson. We have four decades of evidence that the choice between our environment and our economy is a false choice. We are a stronger, healthier and more prosperous nation because of the Clean Air Act.

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