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The Counterproductive Clean Air Act


The Counterproductive Clean Air Act

Both the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that implements it are now almost thirty years old. A flawed approach from the start, the Clean Air Act is getting worse with age. Virtually anything that made sense to do under it has long since been done, yet the EPA’s still-growing bureaucracy cranks out successively tougher new rules at a fast pace. And, as if the agency’s authority under the original 1970 Act were not enough, Congress enacted expansive amendments in 1990 that have just begun to take effect. Every cliché about Washington overreaching–chasing diminishing marginal returns, defining the problem downward, and so on–is proven true each time a new federal Clean Air initiative is announced.

Much has been written about how environmental and public health measures costing too much per hypothetical life saved can actually cause harm. Resources allocated towards minute risk reductions could be better spent on other measures, or better still left unspent by government and in the people’s pockets. A number of Clean Air rules amply demonstrate this point, squandering billions but providing negligible benefits.

It gets worse. Several recent measures under the Clean Air Act may actually hurt the environment. As the following two examples illustrate, the narrow pursuit of small improvements in air quality can increase other environmental and public health risks.

A Policy Running on MTBE—The Clean Air Act’s Misguided Reformulated Gasoline Program

Before 1990, the Clean Air Act focused on motor vehicle emissions without heavily regulating fuel content itself. That changed with the 1990 amendments, which created the reformulated gasoline (RFG) program. Under this program, gasoline sold in the smoggiest areas of the country, amounting to approximately 30 percent of the nation’s fuel supply, must meet particular compositional requirements and emissions performance standards in order to be certified as RFG. Most controversial is the requirement that, irrespective of environmental performance, RFG must contain at least 2 percent oxygen content by weight. As gasoline contains little or no oxygen, this requirement necessitates the addition of so-called oxygenates, the most common of which is methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). The only other viable oxygenate is ethanol, which has a number of disadvantages.

But the addition of MTBE in reformulated gas has not reduced smog. A 1999 National Research Council report concluded that its use "has little impact on improving air quality and has some disadvantages." While the air quality upside of MTBE has been proven to be nearly nonexistent, its water quality downside is quite real. Over the last few years, reports of MTBE leaking from storage tanks and pipelines and into groundwater have sparked a nationwide backlash against its use. Numerous complaints about the odor and taste problems from MTBE-contaminated water supplies, as well as fears (although unsubstantiated) of cancer and other health problems, have led to a California ban on MTBE by 2003. Several bills in Congress would reduce or eliminate the use of MTBE nationwide by getting rid of the 2 percent oxygen content requirement. Even EPA, after years of denial that anything was wrong with the oxygenates mandate, finally admitted in a 1999 study that it has led to widespread water contamination problems. The agency now recommends "action by Congress to remove the 2 percent oxygen content requirement." In the meantime, a third of Americans continue to pay several cents more per gallon for federally mandated gasoline that raises public health and environmental concerns, while providing no benefits.


The EPA’s New Smog Creation Program—Tier 2/Sulfur Standards

In December, the EPA finalized new rules tightening motor vehicle emissions, including those from light trucks, a category of vehicles that includes the popular SUVs and minivans. In conjunction, the agency also promulgated sharply lower standards for sulfur content in gasoline. These rules are estimated to raise car and truck prices by as much as $200, and the price of gasoline by several cents per gallon.

EPA claims, among other things, that the required emissions reductions in oxides of nitrogen (NOx) would reduce ozone—the primary constituent of smog—and bring more areas of the country into attainment with the federal ozone standard.

EPA’s tough new motor vehicle standards are unnecessary, because cars and trucks have already become very clean burning. Indeed, a new vehicle creates less than 5 percent of the emissions of a comparable 1970 model. There simply is no logical reason to further tighten the screws on vehicle exhaust. EPA’s own evidence shows that, even without these new rules, nearly every area of the country will soon be in line with federal ozone standards.

EPA’s NOx emissions reductions may actually worsen smog in metropolitan areas. Unlike other pollutants, ozone is not directly released into the atmosphere, but is created through a complex series of reactions involving NOx and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the presence of sunlight. A National Academy of Sciences study concluded, "NOx reductions can have either a beneficial or detrimental effect on ozone concentrations, depending on the locations and emissions rates of VOC and NOx sources in a region." In its zeal to enact these new rules, EPA simplistically treats NOx as an ozone precursor, and thus incorrectly concludes that NOx reductions always yield ozone reductions.

Evidence shows that smog in many urban areas increases when NOx reductions are further reduced, while declines generally occur in less heavily populated downwind areas. Indeed, several studies have shown that city smog actually gets worse on weekends relative to weekdays, despite reduced vehicular traffic and NOx emissions. In effect, EPA’s required NOx reductions will mimic this weekend effect all week long in many cities. "EPA’s rules are almost tailor-made to increase ozone in virtually all large American cities," says Kay Jones, head of a Seattle-based environmental consulting firm and a former senior advisor at the Counsel of Environmental Quality under the Ford and Carter administrations. Jones predicts ozone increases in most metropolitan areas as a consequence of these rules, putting as many as 12 otherwise-compliant areas out of attainment with the federal standards.

In effect, the agency’s new motor vehicle emissions rules will burden millions of urban drivers with higher costs while making smog worse for them.

These are just two instances of the Clean Air Act doing more harm than good. It’s bad enough that federal air pollution policy has been implemented in an unnecessarily costly manner, but it now is resulting in actions that may actually damage the environment and public health.

Ben Lieberman ( is a policy analyst at CEI.