States, Not Federal Government, Are Key to Improving Air Quality in U.S.

Published April 1, 1999

The nation’s air quality was improving long before the federal government established mandatory guidelines, says a new study, and those guidelines deserve very little of the credit for air quality improvements seen since their adoption.

Indeed, the study’s author contends, federal programs and subsequent amendments have failed to deliver the intended remedies to air pollution problems.

“If the success of the 1970 federalization is judged by the same criterion that many of its proponents applied to state and local control and to the Air Quality Act of 1967, then federalization must also be judged to be a failure,” writes Indur M. Goklany PhD, author of “Do We Need the Federal Government to Protect Air Quality?”

Goklany’s research was published in December by the Center for the Study of American Business (CSAB) at Washington University in St. Louis. Goklany has studied environment issues for 25 years, working for the state of Michigan, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Interior Department.

“Even today,” Goklany continues, “two decades and two major rewrites of the Clean Air Act later, many places are not in compliance.” As recently as the summer of 1998, 57 areas of the country had not met federal guidelines governing ozone levels.

Goklany gives credit where credit is due, noting that federalization has played a part in creating the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, by which people can determine if their air quality is “healthful,” and lowering motor vehicle emissions. But those contributions, he insists, do not offset the long-term trends, which clearly indicate that even before federal involvement, air quality was improving in those areas where serious pollutants posed the greatest health risks.

Smoke presented the country’s first air quality problem, as urbanization and industrialization moved westward using dirty-burning bituminous coal and wood as fuel for railroads, ships, industries and homes. Because the nation was focused on growth, little was done to combat the problem until late in the nineteenth century.

Only then, writes Goklany, did the “reinforcing forces of economic growth and technological change [create] both the supply and the demand for new, cleaner technologies.” Cleaner-burning oil, natural gas, and electricity later replaced coal and wood at every level of society.

Despite those improvements, several pollution episodes during the first half of the twentieth century heightened public awareness of the health risks associated with industrialization, urbanization, and new technologies.

In October 1948, a stagnant air mass over Donora, Pennsylvania, killed 18 people. Four years later, in England, 4,000 deaths were attributed to high concentrations of sulfur dioxide and smoke. In 1966, the deaths of 200 people in New York heightened public awareness of air quality issues and led to the creation of local pollution control programs across the country. Those efforts later were bolstered by the federal government’s adoption of the Air Pollution Control Act in 1955 and the Clean Air Act of 1963.

The rationale for federalization of air pollution control, says Goklany, developed out of concern that “the states had failed to act.” Proponents of federalization also contended that the states–always competing with each for business and therefore having an incentive to offer a “loose” regulatory climate–could not be trusted to adopt adequate environmental controls. Federalization’s advocates argued that without federal regulations, the states would ease their pollution standards and jeopardize the population.

“For such a race-to-the bottom argument to be valid, there ought to have been little, or no, air pollution regulation before federalization,” Goklany responds. “Nor should there have been any significant improvements in air quality anywhere (except by accident or happy economic circumstance).” In fact, he argues, the states were engaged in a “race to the top”: as economic prosperity and the quality of life improved, people began to expect, and could afford to pay for, corresponding improvements in the environment.

Goklany urges that efforts to improve air quality be subject to cost-benefit analysis, and resources spent where they are likely to have the greatest impact.

“Studies suggest . . . that the benefit-cost ratio for controlling ozone is relatively low, while that of controlling fine particulate matter is much higher. Thus, society would be better off if the former was de-emphasized with at least some of the resulting savings applied to the latter.”

With respect to short-range, intrastate pollutants–often the most difficult to measure and control–Goklany recommends that the federal government’s role be restricted to research and disseminating to the states information about the costs and benefits of efforts to control the problem.

States should be permitted to act according to their own needs, notes Goklany, rather than being subjected to a one-size-fits all approach developed at the federal level. “This is preferable to having such decisions made by those who do not directly bear either the costs or the benefits of attainment,” he says.