Happy Birthday, Clean Air Act!

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson Answers Your Questions

12-02-2010 // Tony Iallonardo
Lisa Jackson

This month, America celebrates the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Clean Air Act and the founding of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson kindly offered to answer questions from NWF members and you answered the call in our previous blog post.

Undoubtedly the Clean Air Act and EPA have delivered on environmental and public health benefits across the United States. It all started four decades ago on December 31, 1970, when President Richard Nixon signed the law to foster the growth of a strong American economy and industry while improving human health and the environment.

In her interview with NWF, Ms. Jackson makes clear she stands ready to defend the Clean Air Act from attacks that are likely to come from Congress in the coming year.  NWF will stand with her to defend clean air that’s so vital to people and wildlife. 

National Wildlife Federation: How does the Clean Air Act affect the daily life of individual Americans in terms of their health and well being?

Lisa Jackson: Because of the protections in the Clean Air Act, dangerous pollution in the air we breathe is down by more than half from where it was four decades ago.  Lead alone, which can cause serious and lifelong health issues, is down more than 90 percent in the same time.  Each year since 1990 the Clean Air Act has removed an average of 1.7 million tons of pollution from our skies.

In 1990 alone, cleaner air prevented more than 200,000 premature deaths and spared 18 million children from respiratory illnesses.  People across the country can literally breathe easier because of the Clean Air Act. 

NWF: What can the public do to ensure the Clean Air Act is protected and strengthened for future generations?

LJ: Forty years ago, Americans came together and demanded change. That action led to the creation of the EPA and laws like the Clean Air Act. We need the public to come together again today and use the power of their own voices to make sure everyone knows how important the Clean Air Act is to our health and our economy.

If our leaders know the people they serve want a strong Clean Air Act, they will work to strengthen it.  And if our businesses know the consumers who buy their products want a strong Clean Air Act, they’ll find innovative ways to keep our air clean.

NWF: Do you believe reductions in smog, acid rain and other pollution attributed to the Clean Air Act has benefitted special places like parks and rivers and plants and animal wildlife?

LJ: Absolutely.  Pollution can be carried for miles and do damage far from its source.  Especially in the case of acid rain, we saw increasing threats to wilderness and took effective steps to eliminate those threats.

NWF:  So often we hear that environmental progress can’t happen.  Can you talk about how the Clean Air Act has spurred the U.S. development of and world leadership on pollution control technologies?

LJ: Something that often goes unnoticed is that smart, effective environmental regulations can thrive on the openness and entrepreneurship of our economy.  New rules create a need in the market, and innovators step up to fill that need with a new product.  Catalytic converters, smokestack scrubbers and CFC replacements are good examples of inventions that were largely inspired by Clean Air Act rules.  They protected the environment while generating profits in the private sector. 

Such technologies have prompted a homegrown environmental industry.  In 2007 environmental firms and small businesses in the US generated $282 billion in revenues and $40 billion in exports, and supported 1.6 million American jobs. 

NWF:  How does the EPA plan to use the Clean Air Act to help the U.S. meet its pledge to reduce global warming pollution 17 percent by 2020?

LJ: Last year, following the Supreme Court and years of science, we determined that greenhouse gases pose a threat to our health and welfare.  That historic decision obligated us to reduce greenhouse gas pollution under the Clean Air Act, which led to a series of other actions. 

We joined automakers, autoworkers, governors and environmental advocates to craft the first-ever greenhouse gas emissions standards for American vehicles – which will cut some 950 million tons of carbon pollution from our skies, while saving drivers of clean cars $3,000 at the gas pump.  Our next step was to craft a tailoring rule that limits permitting to the largest emitting sources, phases-in requirements and shields small greenhouse gas emitters – including thousands of small businesses and non-profits – from regulation.  Most recently we finalized rules about greenhouse gas reporting and carbon capture and storage. 

Without comprehensive regulation, these are the best, commonsense steps that will get us the measurable results we want.

NWF:  Have there been unexpected benefits from the Clean Air Act since it was enacted in terms of jobs, technology, national security or in other ways?

LJ: There was an expectation of broad success – both through cleaner air and the benefits that brings to families, communities and the country.  Yet, perhaps the original drafters of the law and the first employees at EPA could not have predicted the full extent of that success. 

For every dollar we’ve spent on Clean Air Act regulation and compliance, we’re seen a return of $40 in benefits.  This law is one of the most cost-effective things the American people have done for themselves in the last half century.  Along with that, many U.S. companies have taken the lead in environmental innovations, and that has led to new jobs and continuing innovation. 

NWF:  Do you think the Clean Air Act will be vulnerable to political attacks in the months to come and if so how specifically?

LJ: The history of this law makes an extremely strong case against those who might try to weaken it.  The Clean Air Act has always been challenged with exaggerated doomsday claims of economic catastrophe. Despite the fact that not one of them has come true, we’re hearing the very same claims today. 

We have 40 years of proof that this law works.  It is effective at protecting the air we breathe and strengthening our economy. If we can make that case, the Clean Air Act will not be vulnerable to partisan attacks.