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The Clean Air Act at 40: Still Vulnerable to Polluters' Falsehoods

Forty years ago, Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970. Nearly every Clean Air Act program that we now take for granted was bitterly opposed by industry. That same pattern holds true today.
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Forty years ago, Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970. That same year, with a group of colleagues we founded NRDC, and we spent the next four decades using the Clean Air Act to improve the health of millions of Americans.

After 40 years of pushing the EPA to carry out Clean Air Act, going to court to enforce the law when necessary, and returning to Congress to defend and strengthen it, I have noticed a clear and obvious pattern.

Nearly every Clean Air Act program that we now take for granted -- removing lead from gasoline, curbing acid rain, cutting pollution from cars and trucks -- was bitterly opposed by industry. Each time, businesses claimed they would be shuttered by the effort to make our air safer, yet the costs of complying were almost always less than they maintained.

That same pattern holds true today. Power companies still generating power from dirty coal-fired plants say that using the Clean Air Act to curb global warming pollution will run them into the ground.

But we have 40-years worth of experience with the Clean Air Act that proves we can cut pollution and save lives, and still enjoy economic growth. Indeed, since Congress passed the law, we have prevented hundreds of thousands of premature deaths AND the economy has grown by 70 percent.

They say those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. I have come to realize that unless we recognize polluters' patterns, every generation will be destined to fight the same environmental battles over and over. We will be forced to defend the Clean Air Act time and again from self-interested assaults and overblown predictions of demise.

We have faced these attacks many times before. I remember back in the late 1980s when NRDC was pushing Congress to reduce the pollution that causes acid rain. Scientists had documented the devastating effect acid rain had on forests, lakes, fish, and human health, but coal-fired power plant operators painted the science as unsettled and the remedies as too costly.

One industry group wrote, "In light of the evolving science, uncertainties, and staggering costs, can we justify acid rain controls now? We think not."

But according to an MIT study, the true cost for implementing the acid rain program was about 80 percent lower than originally predicted. Costs came down because the new rule triggered innovation. Industry started making more effective scrubbers that made the job of capturing pollution easier and more affordable.

Meanwhile, the acid rain program dramatically reduced fine particulate levels, preventing about 19,000 premature deaths every year. EPA analysis found that the benefits of the program outweigh the costs 40 to 1.

That same pattern unfolded when the EPA proposed phasing out ozone-depleting CFCs. Manufacturers claimed they did not have the technology to keep machines running and that the industry would come to a screeching halt.

One refrigeration company representative forecast: "We will see shutdowns of chiller machines, which cool our large office building, our hotels and hospitals."

In fact, the sky did not fall. Chemical companies developed alternatives to CFCs and were able to meet the EPA's standards four to six years early and at 30 percent less cost than expected.

The health benefits of phasing out CFCs are enormous. The phase-out will avoid almost 300 million cases of skin cancer between 1989 and 2075.

The successes of the Clean Air Act have transformed how we view pollution. Back in 1970, when the law debated in Congress, one Representative quoted the mayor of a small town who said, "If you want this town to grow, it has got to stink." There was a prevailing view that economic growth depended on foul, malodorous pollution.

Now we know better. From hybrid cars to organic foods, clean tech to energy efficiency, environmental safeguards and economic prosperity go hand in hand. The numbers back it up: Green jobs are growing 2.5 times as fast as traditional jobs, and California's clean energy economy has attracted more than $6.5 billion in venture capital in the past three years.

Yet despite this reality, polluters will still try to convince lawmakers that the next set of standards will cause the sky to fall. I have heard the same industry complaints time and again -- and I hear them today regarding efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But I have also seen how hard science, tenacious advocacy, and public concern can rise above the racket. That's how we got lead out of gasoline, phased out CFCs, and cut acid rain.

We can do the same with global warming pollution, as long as Americans see through industry falsehoods and make their own voices heard. Click here to tell Congress not to weaken the Clean Air Act.

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