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New Administration, New Era For Clean Air Act


The Clean Air Act is one of those laws that people either love or hate.

No matter what side of that emotional spectrum people fall on, there’s no denying its overarching role in American society. The Clean Air Act was originally passed by the U.S. Congress in 1963, with an incredibly broad agenda:

  • to protect and enhance the quality of the nation’s air resources so as to promote the public health and welfare;
  • to initiate and accelerate a national research and development program to achieve the prevention and control of air pollution;
  • to provide technical and financial assistance to state and local governments in connection with the development and execution of their air pollution prevention and control programs;
  • to encourage and assist the development and operation of regional air pollution prevention and control programs.

It is one of the strongest examples of environmental legislation in the world. Tomas Carbonell from the Environmental Defense Fund says the act “has not only served as a model around the world for climate and clean air protections, but it has also made the U.S. a global leader in pollution control technologies that are really helping to generate investments and jobs here at home.”

Proponents like Carbonell point to statistics showing that environmental regulations passed under the authority of the act have reduced ground-level ozone, mercury emissions and the pollutants that cause acid rain, and significantly reduced the amount of lead in gasoline.

Climate change and pollution

Then, in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that so-called greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, methane and a few others, were a danger to the “public health and welfare” and could be regulated under the Clean Air act. The EPA has been doing so ever since.

Fast forward to last year, when the Supreme Court stopped the implementation of the Obama Administration’s signature climate change legislation called the Clean Power Plan (CPP). The CPP would have forced U.S. power plants to cut their 2005 emissions by one-third by 2030. But that plan is on hold until a lower court rules on whether the EPA overstepped its authority when it imposed those new regulations.

Now, under the Trump administration, it is unclear what will happen to the CPP. Though court watchers say it is unlikely to be implemented if President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, is confirmed.

That lack of clarity extends to a number of policies that rely on the Clean Air Act for their authority to regulate pollutants.

The EPA in the Trump administration

And it also extends to the Environmental Protection Agency itself, which enforces and handles the regulations created by the Clean Air Act. Its new administrator, Scott Pruitt, is a former attorney general for the U.S. state of Oklahoma. In that role, he was involved in at least 13 lawsuits brought against the EPA, challenging it for overstepping its regulatory authority.

Pruitt spoke to EPA staffers in mid-February about his vision for the agency.

“I believe that we as an agency, and we as a nation, can be both pro-energy and jobs and pro-environment,” he said. “But we don’t have to choose between the two.”

Many of EPA’s regulations are designed to address concerns about climate change. Trump has questioned the reality of climate change and also suggested that he believes EPA regulations are hurting U.S. business. And he is reportedly preparing to end some of former President Barack Obama’s policies on air and water through executive order.

Carbonell says any attempts to weaken Obama-era policies will likely end up in court.

“We believe that these programs rest on a really rock-solid legal and scientific foundation,” he said, “and in the case of climate pollutants, the Supreme Court has ruled on three separate occasions that the EPA has the authority and responsibility under Clean Air Act to address the threat of climate change.”

Today in a speech to CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump said he would protect the environment, though as yet he hasn’t offered any specifics.

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