Acid Rain Program Shows EPA Ready to Take on Carbon Energy and Emissions

With Congress unlikely to pass major climate change legislation any time soon, the job of reducing pollution from carbon energy and emissions has been left up to the existing Clean Air Act, which is enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Fortunately the Clean Air Act has already proved itself an effective tool for reducing pollution, suggesting it could be used successfully to curb climate change as well. A report released this week by the EPA shows how Clean Air Act regulations have made dramatic cuts to acid rain pollution at relatively very low cost. If the EPA is allowed to take similar steps to regulate carbon energy and emissions, the US could dramatically reduce the risks of climate change.

The EPA’s acid rain program was born in 1990, when Congress amended the Clean Air Act to mandate a gradual reduction of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides—the main pollutants responsible for causing acid rain. In 1995 the program began in earnest, with the goal of reducing these emissions to half their 1980 levels by the year 2010. Fifteen years after that goal was set, the EPA has come through with flying colors. The agency reports that by 2009 sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions had dropped 67% below their 1980 levels. The public health benefits of these pollution cuts are estimated at over $120 billion, approximately forty times the cost of implementing the program.

These sorts of numbers should inspire confidence in the EPA’s ability to use the Clean Air Act to address major energy and emissions challenges. Yet despite the demonstrable success of the acid rain program, conservative-leaning members of Congress are warning the Clean Air Act will be an unwieldy tool for curbing carbon emissions and that we should all wait for a completely new law. Senators like Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) are mounting an effort to pass legislation that would restrict the EPA from regulating carbon emissions for at least another two years. Other lawmakers, like Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) have already made failed attempts to handicap the Clean Air Act.

The arguments these members of Congress use to justify their anti-clean air campaign suggests they are counting on the public’s ignorance of how laws are enforced to provide them with cover to hamstring the Clean Air Act. Knowing the majority of voters favor clean air, senators like Murkowski have tried to frame their actions as a simple case of putting Congress, rather than a bureaucratic federal agency, in charge of regulating carbon energy and emissions. Yet the premise of the “Congress vs. the EPA” argument is ridiculous, the reason being Congress does not enforce laws. Congress makes laws, while the executive branch of government carries them out.

The EPA will probably be the executive agency that enforces any new energy and emissions law Congress comes up with—and meanwhile it is that agency’s duty to enforce laws already on the books. This includes the Clean Air Act, which has a proven track record of protecting public health from problem like acid rain in a cost-effective manner. Now Congress should step back and let the EPA do its job.

Photo credit: Curran Kelleher