This Environmentalist Opposes More Strict Air Quality Standards

Published January 29, 1997

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed lowering the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ozone from 0.12 parts per million (averaged over one hour) to 0.08 (averaged over eight hours). EPA also seeks to impose standards for the first time on particulate matter under 2.5 microns in diameter. In mid-January, public hearings on the new standards were held in Boston, Chicago, and Salt Lake City.

The general public usually sees the debate over making environmental regulations more strict as a debate between environmentalists and polluters, or between grassroots activists and big business. Who . . . besides polluters and profit-driven businessmen . . . could be against cleaner air and water?

I’ll tell you who: an environmentalist who wants decisions based on sound science, rather than hype; benefits to exceed costs; respect shown for the rights of others; and policies that work with, rather than against, market forces.

I believe in clean air, but the new air quality standards are not necessary to protect either the environment or human health. When the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Committee reviewed the agency’s case for new particulate standards, it found that EPA failed to “provide a scientifically adequate basis” for revising the standard. The epidemiological study upon which the EPA relied was not published in a peer-reviewed journal; did not actually measure exposure to air pollution; failed to control for myriad possible confounding factors; and found a risk ratio too low to convince most scientists that the association was anything more than chance.

The second reason to oppose the new ozone and particulate matter standards is that the cost of lowering those standards far exceeds the benefits to public health or the environment. One study found that the costs of meeting the lower standard may exceed benefits by a margin of four to one. The compliance cost for just the proposed ozone standard, and for just the Lower Lake Michigan Region, is expected to range from $3.7 to $8.8 billion per year. Estimates of the national cost of the new standards start at an unrealistically low $10 billion and rise from there.

Although I am an environmentalist, I understand that people have rights and expectations that properly limit what society and government can do to protect the environment. This leads me to the third reason to oppose the new air quality standards: They unjustly violate our constitutionally protected property rights and freedom of action.

My deference to the rights and freedom of individuals doesn’t mean I am a pacifist when it comes to pollution. I have a right to be free of injury from the pollution of others. Before it was preempted by regulations, common law treated pollution as trespass, and held polluters accountable to their victims for any damage they caused. But common law also protected people’s property by requiring proof that an injury occurred before legal action was taken. As I noted earlier, EPA has yet to prove that injury has occurred.

Instead of paying too much for too few results, policymakers ought to consider reducing air pollution through mechanisms that work with, rather than against, property rights and individual freedom. One market-based approach would be to increase highway tolls during rush hours and lower them during non-rush hours, giving drivers an incentive to drive at times when the roads are less congested.

Another market-based approach to pollution control is mobile emissions testing. The technology exists to test a vehicle’s emissions while it is entering or leaving a freeway ramp. The results can be instantly analyzed and reported to the driver by a flashing sign further down the road, or sent by mail to the home of the vehicle’s registered owner. The owners of cars that are heavy polluters only about one car in ten is can be notified or even fined without inconveniencing the nine-out-of-ten owners whose cars are relatively clean.

Either of these proposals, and plenty of others, would achieve greater emission reductions than the new standards being proposed by EPA, and they would do so without wasting billions of dollars, destroying hundreds of thousands of jobs, and violating the rights and expectations of individuals. Environmentalists who ignore such policy options are failing to represent the public’s views as well as the views of prominent scientists and a growing number of other experts.

Why not start now to implement these new ideas?

Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute, an independent nonprofit research organization based in Palatine, Illinois. He is the coauthor of Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism (Madison Books: 1994, 1996). He can be reached by calling 847/202-3060.