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The Clean Air Act is a federal environmental law in the United States that focuses on airborne pollutants known to present hazards to human health. It requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to design and enforce regulations that protect individuals from exposure to these hazardous airborne contaminants. Under the current structure of the law, the EPA sets limits on how much of an airborne pollutant can be in the air anywhere in the United States.
The Clean Air Act is actually a long series of federal laws and amendments that span a period of50 years. The Clean Air Act of 1963 set emissions standards for stationary sources (such as factories and power plants) and encouraged the use of sulfur-removing technology and future research into the dangers of motor vehicle emissions. Eight years earlier, the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 had been the first law regulating air pollution at the national level. It provided a relatively small appropriation ($5 million annually), but its larger significance had been to raise concerns about air pollution and to set the stage for federal regulation such as the Clean Air Act of 1963. Subsequent amendments in the 1960s strengthened and clarified the act by setting compliance deadlines, establishing detailed air quality standards, expanding local pollution control programs, and extending the act to cover mobile sources (such as automobiles).
The Clean Air Act of 1970 further strengthened the standards and regulations by establishing new standards for ambient air quality, setting new limits on emissions, and providing additional funding for research. Congress did amend the Clean Air Act in 1977, but in the 1970s and 1980s the EPA primarily implemented the policy outlined in the Clean Air Act of 1970 without making major changes. It was not until 1990 that the federal government again modified the Clean Air Act in any significant way. The Clean Air Act of 1990 not only strengthened existing regulations, but it also expanded the reach of the Clean Air Act to cover previously unregulated areas. It set new air quality standards and targeted motor vehicle emissions, toxic air pollutants, acid rain, smog, stratospheric ozone depletion, and interstate emissions. It also created a comprehensive pollution permit system, widely regarded as a great success for environmental economic policy.
During the 1990s, the EPA engaged in an extensive study to assess the effect of the Clean Air Act on the “public health, economy, and environment of the United States.” In 1997, the EPA issued a report on the Benefits and Costs of the Clean Air Act, 1970 to 1990. The report found that emissions of criteria pollutants (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, ozone, and lead) had declined 30 to 100 percent. The report also found that these declines greatly increased intelligence quotient and reduced mortality, hypertension, and a number of other adverse health effects. They also improved visibility and avoided significant damage to agricultural crops. The report estimated a benefit-cost ratio of between 10.7 and 94.5, with a mean estimate of 42. This and other evidence indicate that the Clean Air Act has dramatically improved environmental quality and health in the United States, and that it has done so at relatively low cost.
The most recent changes to the Clean Air Act were implemented with the Clear Skies Initiative, put forward in 2003 by the administration of President George W. Bush. This regulation weakened much of the Clean Air Act by raising emission caps, weakening regulation on older power plants, and delaying or hampering implementation of many Clean Air Act regulations. It also failed to address carbon dioxide emissions. The effects of these changes on actual enforcement or on environment quality are yet to be determined, but may very well be substantial.
Although it is a federal law, the Clean Air Act can be enforced by individual states. A state may submit a State Implementation Plan detailing how it will comply with the regulations. If the plan is approved, the state receives federal funding and takes on the responsibility for local enforcement of the Clean Air Act. Most states follow this procedure. State governments, with more detailed knowledge of their own geography, industry, and population, may be better equipped to regulate pollution efficiently and effectively within their own borders.
- Environmental Protection Agency, Final Report to Congress on Benefits and Costs of the Clean Air Act, 1970 to 1990 (U.S. Gov. Printing Office, EPA 410-R-97-002, 1997);
- James P. Lipton, ed., Clean Air Act: lnterpretation and Analysis (Nova Sciences Publishers, 2006);
- Tom Tietenberg, Environmental Economics and Policy (Pearson Addison Wesley, 2004).