Thursday, February 24, 2011

Congress and Clean Air

In the guise of budget-cutting, House Republicans are attempting to hamstring the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Recall that under the Bush administration the EPA had decided not to undertake regulation of carbon dioxide and other emissions, and was taken to court by a number of states, ultimately resulting in a Supreme Court decision holding that Bush's EPA had violated its mandate under the Clean Air Act. In other words, the Bush administration was essentially found to have acted unlawfully by failing to follow the legislative requirement that the EPA regulate emissions that contribute to air pollution.

What is the House Republicans' response? They are attempting to cut the EPA's budget drastically, and  re-write the laws so that Congress, not EPA scientists, will be making the determination of what emissions contribute to pollution. For example, one amendment passed by the House last week would preclude the EPA from enforcing any laws regulating greenhouse gas emissions, essentially overruling or rendering unenforceable a central provision of the Clean Air Act. I do not want to open a debate here about the science. I understand the common sense view that carbon dioxide is a natural part of the air we breathe, and is in fact essential for plants to grow. On the other hand, those who think we should not regulate carbon dioxide should recognize that if we breathe too much of it, we die. Therefore, from the point of view of human life, it might make sense to think of it as a pollutant. Even the Bush EPA did not dispute the science determining that these gases are harmful to the environment. I am not a scientist, however, and I am not qualified to debate the effects of carbon dioxide on human life or global temperatures or anything else. I will leave that to others.

My point is simply that a determination of what chemicals cause air pollution IS solely a matter of science, and therefore must be decided by a process of scientific experiment. It is beyond the competence of Congress to legislate whether a given chemical is a pollutant or not. That cannot be decided by debate, or by politics, or by putting the matter to a vote. It is hardly different from the Catholic Church making Galileo recant his findings that the earth goes around the sun. Congress does not have the tools to make those kinds of determinations. And it must be said that Congressmen are hardly unbiased about the matter, being heavily influenced by the contributions of industries who have a keen interest in loosening restrictions on their ability to pollute.

It would be one thing if Congress had decided that the government should not attempt to do anything at all about air pollution.  But Congress long ago decided that the government should attempt to reduce air pollution, and established an agency for the purpose of doing that. The Clean Air Act has been amazingly successful in reducing air pollution. Why would we want to backtrack from our commitment to clean air? Congress has no business second-guessing the agency's scientific determinations of which emissions are harmful and which are not.

If we are lucky, we will be able to count on cooler heads in the Senate to put a stop to efforts by those who do not know what they are talking about to tell scientists how to do their job. 

(smokestack photo from Sierra Club website)


  1. This is my first time on your site. Lots of good articles and info. I will try to spread the word.

  2. Thanks for visiting and commenting, Dorothy. Hope to see you back often.