On Monday June 2, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a regulation that would cut carbon pollution from power plants up to 30 percent by 2030. Within hours, House Speaker John Boehner delivered his response: “The president’s plan is nuts. There’s really no more succinct way to describe it.” But that’s politics talking, not science or known results.
Time after time, the utility industry and its congressional allies have claimed that Government regulatory actions to reduce harmful air pollution would impose huge costs and harm our economy, and time after time American ingenuity has carried the day and proved those claims simply wrong.
Here, for example, is General Motors vice president Ernest Starkman testifying before Congress in 1972 on planned emissions regulations: “…to introduce catalytic converter systems across-the-board on 1975 models — it is conceivable that complete stoppage of the entire production could occur, with the obvious tremendous loss to the company, shareholders, employees, suppliers, and communities.”
In fact, those catalytic converters and other required emission control strategies not only cut pollution by 99 percent; they also resulted in more fun-to-drive, durable, and efficient cars. And they have been economical by any measure. According to EPA, programs to clean up vehicles and fuels have produced $16 in benefits for every $1 in costs.
The same hue and cry arose in 2000 when President Bill Clinton pushed through regulations aimed at cleaning up diesel fuel. According to the oil industry, calamitous diesel fuel shortages were sure to follow, along with sky-high diesel prices. None of it happened, though. Today, the oil industry is a net exporter of clean diesel fuel, the black smoke of diesel engines is mostly history, and hundreds of thousands of respiratory illnesses and 40,000 premature deaths will be prevented.
Politics, of course, will always be politics, but grandstanding aside, the regulatory process doesn’t have to work this way. One of President Obama’s first executive orders compelled the EPA to determine if greenhouse gases threaten public health. The finding was yes, it does, and the eventual result of that directive was a deal with the auto industry to double fuel efficiency in its vehicles to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. That single rule will reduce greenhouse gases by six-billion metric tons over the lifetime of the vehicles while saving consumers $1.7 trillion and reducing oil consumption by 2.2 million barrels a day, an amount that could allow the US to stop importing oil from the Persian Gulf.
Odds are you don’t remember hearing about this groundbreaking regulation, the first climate action by the United States that finally set the country on a course to combat climate change, and here’s why: The auto companies didn’t fight it. Conflict makes great political drama — and lousy regulation.
I was the head of the EPA team that negotiated that deal. We collaborated with industry while hammering out a deal acceptable to environmental groups. This strategy, backed up by White House muscle, produced tough but fair standards, and — critically — broad support. In 2012, when President Obama announced the most stringent fuel economy regulations ever, he was flanked by smiling auto executives. After years of fighting every proposed safety and health regulation, the car and truck industry had accepted its responsibilities to our planet and our children.
Why? One reason is sheer success: American auto manufacturers today are more competitive, selling more cars than they have in the past seven years. Another important reason: In fashioning the deal, we looked beyond Washington gridlock. Our baseline was the forward-looking 2005 California Clean-Car Program, structured by men and women who were already living in the carbon-plagued future the rest of the country could be headed for.
Most significant, we built flexibility into the outcome. The 2025 standards doubling fuel economy and cutting carbon by half are tough but offer automakers considerable flexibility. Not every car has to be 54.5 MPG in 2025; instead, the average sales of the fleet have to meet the standard. Also each car manufacturer has the flexibility to determine how to get to 54.5 based on the vehicle type the car company is selling.
In the same spirit, the president’s new plan to reduce carbon from power plants also offers huge flexibilities to states, which can tailor carbon reductions based on circumstances and develop strategies that work best on the local and regional level, not in the “gotcha” culture of the Capital. Is that “nuts” as per Speaker Boehner? I’ll let EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy answer:
“For over four decades, E.P.A. has cut air pollution by 70 percent and the economy has more than tripled. All while providing the power we need to keep America strong. Climate action doesn’t dull America’s competitive edge — it sharpens it. It spurs ingenuity and innovation.”
Yes, perhaps history will repeat itself, and there will be industry push back, lawsuits, hyperbole and politically inspired drama. But as the same history has shown, American ingenuity will prevail, the costs ultimately will pale in comparison to the benefits, and we will move forward, saving lives and being responsible stewards of our planet.