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Clean Air Regulations Protect Health and Benefit the Economy

Policy Analysis
Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Trump administration is waging war on the laws meant to protect Americans from air pollution, arguing that rolling back regulations on coal-fired power plants, cars and trucks, and other sources of fossil fuel emissions is necessary to ensure a healthy economy.

But the evidence is clear that environmental and public health protections actually strengthen the economy, by encouraging entrepreneurship, stimulating new industries and improving worker health, which leads to greater productivity.

A recent American Lung Association report found that 40 percent of Americans breathe unhealthy air. The primary culprits are electricity plants, which emit microscopic particles of soot that penetrate deep into our lungs, and automobiles, whose emissions produce ozone. This pollutant can cause or worsen asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

The health impacts are alarming. A new study in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society estimates that asthma costs the nation almost $82 billion per year in medical costs and missed school and work days. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 million Americans have asthma, including more than 8 percent of children and more than 7 percent of adults. The numbers have steadily increased since the 1980s and will get worse. The American Lung Association says warmer weather caused by climate change will drive more ozone formation, resulting in poorer respiratory health.

In the midst of this epidemic of lung disease, the Trump administration has proposed one rollback of clean air rules after another. A major Trump initiative is to rescind Obama-era fuel efficiency standards. Under the Obama standards, by 2025, cars and light trucks are supposed to average nearly 55 miles per gallon. The Obama administration estimated that by that date, consumers would save $1.7 trillion on fuel. Every dollar spent to comply with the standards would return $13 in health benefits. The additional cost to the price of a car would be just $72.

Under Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency has worked systematically to derail air and water regulations for coal-fired power plants. These include making it easier for plants to increase their air emissions through upgrades and eliminating carbon dioxide emission standards.  

The benefits of environmental regulations far outweigh the costs. YaleEnvironment360 reported that a Harvard University study found the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 delivered $30 in health benefits for every dollar of investment. A 2010 study by the Office of Management and Budget found the EPA was consistently the top federal agency in terms of costs of regulations versus benefits.

What’s more, technological advances allow us to systematically replace polluting coal and natural gas plants, and the internal combustion engine. Bloomberg reports that 80 percent of the global auto market is moving toward electric vehicles and it expects electric vehicle sales to exceed those of cars with internal combustion engines within 20 years. From 2010 to 2017, 60,000 megawatts of coal-fired units were closed – enough to power 40 million homes. Wind, solar, natural gas and air regulations have been the driving forces. Renewables and energy storage are now rivaling natural gas plants on cost.

Rather than controlling pollution with retrofits such as scrubbers on coal plants or catalytic converters on cars, we can invest in technology that doesn’t pollute, saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars in health costs. 


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