America using more energy with less pollution

Published April 1, 2002

America’s energy use is increasing, and many assume that energy-related air pollution must also be going up.

The federal government certainly seems to think so: The Clinton administration initiated a number of measures to tighten the Clean Air Act’s already-tough restrictions on power plants, and the Bush Environmental Protection Agency is considering a proposal that may require sharp decreases in certain utility emissions.

But an important new study finds that energy use and air pollution are actually headed in opposite directions. Breathing easier “Breathing Easier about Energy: A Healthy Economy and Healthier Air,” released recently by the Foundation for Clean Air Progress, compares energy use and air quality since 1970. The report concludes that energy use has increased, while energy-related emissions have declined.

Sensitive to criticisms that it is an industry-funded organization, the Foundation’s study relies solely on Department of Energy and EPA data. It concludes that overall energy consumption grew by 41 percent over the past three decades, yet the air is actually cleaner today than it was back in 1970 when President Richard M. Nixon signed the Clean Air Act into law.

Most striking are the 75 percent decline in particulate matter (soot) and 39 percent drop in sulfur dioxide, both attributable in significant part to reduced utility pollution.

The new study generally agrees with EPA’s “Latest Findings on National Air Quality: 2000 Status and Trends,” released with little fanfare last September. EPA concluded that “since 1970, aggregate emissions of six principal pollutants tracked nationally have been cut 29 percent,” over a time period in which the agency estimated an energy consumption increase of 45 percent.

These air quality improvements show no signs of slowing, and indeed are likely to continue into the future as a number of additional clean air requirements take effect in the next few years. There is no evidence that continued economic growth and increasing energy use will derail the progress. Media prefers bad news Nonetheless, polls show that most Americans believe that quality is deteriorating. Their confusion is not difficult to understand, given the near-monopoly on news coverage given to the pessimistic claims from advocacy organizations.

Most notably, the American Lung Association’s well-publicized annual report card on smog gives a failing grade to more than half the nation. Many of these Fs are highly misleading. For example, the residents of Chicago, upon learning their city received a flunking grade, would have no idea that the entire Chicago metropolitan area has not had a single violation of the federal smog standard in the past three years.

Unfortunately, good news about air quality doesn’t get much attention, even though it has a stronger basis in fact than the gloom-and-doom nonsense. Nonetheless, it is important to bridge the gap between the pessimistic perception and optimistic reality of air quality if Washington is to sensibly balance the nation’s environmental and energy demands.

No one is suggesting anything resembling a rollback of the Clean Air Act and its many regulations already in force. But new measures cracking down on power plants–especially regulations that may jeopardize reliability or result in higher energy bills–should be carefully evaluated in light of the positive air quality trends currently under way.

Ben Lieberman is a senior policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.

For more information …

The full text of “Breathing Easier about Energy: A Healthy Economy and Healthier Air,” is available on the Web site of the Foundation for Clean Air Progress at