Research & Commentary: The Clean Air Act

Published June 10, 2014

In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, a law that granted authority to the federal government to control air pollution across the nation. Congress then formed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and tasked it with enforcing the new environmental regulations. Since then, the Clean Air Act has been expanded through various amendments, most notably in 1990 when Congress expanded EPA’s authority to implement and enforce air pollution regulations.

The original intention of the Clean Air Act and establishment of the EPA was to clean up six common air pollutants: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulphur, nitrogen, and lead. This law succeeded initially but has been beset by problems since and now requires significant reform. In 2011, the Goldwater Institute ranked the Clean Air Act as the fifth most burdensome mandate, citing a projected annual cost of $65 billion to states and the private sector by 2020.

One reason for the out of control costs is that every person has a different risk tolerance to air quality, so there is no single scientifically measureable threshold that can be determined “safe” or “not safe.” If air quality standards can never be definitively nailed down then ever-increasing spending can always be justified. Regulatory analysts have found performance-based regulations to be more flexible, more efficient, and less costly than the command-and-control regulations currently employed by EPA. The United States underutilizes such regulations due to political considerations.

In Massachusetts v. EPA, the U.S. Supreme Court determined EPA could regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, completely detaching the law from its original intent. As EPA’s own Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Regulating Greenhouse Gas Emissions Under the Clean Air Act recognizes, “the CAA was not specifically designed to address GHGs and illustrate[s] the opportunity for new legislation to reduce regulatory complexity.” Even Clean Air Act coauthor Rep. John Dingell called this Supreme Court decision “stupid.”

Many suspect this decision will open the floodgates for more regulation, as Richard Lindzen, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noted: “If you control carbon, you control life.”

With the emergence of capable state-level environmental agencies in all 50 states—agencies that did not exist when EPA was created—Congress should return authority to states to innovate and experiment with new regulatory approaches by allowing them to apply for regulatory waivers from EPA mandates. This would allow greater regulatory experimentation at a lower cost while enabling greater containment of risk, thereby facilitating much-needed innovation in environmental protection.

The following documents provide additional information about the Clean Air Act.


Ten Principles of Energy Policy
The Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast outlines the ten most important principles for policymakers confronting energy issues, providing guidance to help deal with ongoing changes in markets, technology, and policies adopted in other states, supported by a thorough bibliography. 

It’s Time to Restore EPA’s Original Purpose
Heartland Institute Science Director Jay Lehr, Ph.D., describes the role he played in advocating the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency during his time as head of the National Association of Groundwater Scientists and Engineers. With the emergence of state-level environmental agencies in all 50 states, Lehr argues the entire federal agency should be replaced by the work of state agencies supplemented by a newly formed “Committee of the Whole.” 

The Plain English Guide to the Clean Air Act
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides an easy-to-understand introduction to the Clean Air Act, its purpose, and how it fights air pollution, particularly the six “criteria pollutants.” 

CO2-Emission Cuts: The Economic Costs of the EPA’s ANPR Regulations
Economists David Kreutzer and Karen Campbell evaluate EPA’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR), which would expand federal CO2 regulations, finding the rule would cause the economy to lose nearly $7 trillion in the first twenty years alone. 

Dingell Calls Supreme Court ‘Stupid’ for Allowing EPA to Regulate CO2
Rep. John Dingell, coauthor of the Clean Air Act, says the Supreme Court is “stupid” for allowing EPA to regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act, saying that was not the intention behind the law. Rep. Dingell made these comments in a Jan. 28, 2014 House Energy & Commerce Committee hearing. 

Research & Commentary: State Waivers from EPA Regulation
Heartland Institute Policy Analyst Taylor Smith examines the possibility of state waivers from EPA regulations, which has been promoted by such scholars as Case Western University law professor Jonathan Adler and Cato Institute Vice President Jerry Taylor. The idea is modeled on Section 160 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which allowed telecom companies to submit waiver requests from Federal Communications Commission regulations. 

Federalism DIY: 10 Ways for States to Check and Balance Washington
This 2011 Goldwater Institute paper explains how states can regain their sovereignty and restore the U.S. Constitution’s intention to make them equal partners with the federal government in protecting individual rights. While discussing state sovereignty, the authors rank the five most burdensome federal mandates in terms of estimated costs to the states. Starting with the most burdensome, the rankings are as follows: Medicare/Medicaid, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, No Child Left Behind, and the Clean Air Act.

Policy Memorandum: Environmental Protection Agency Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking
During the George W. Bush administration, the White House released this policy memo discussing the proposed regulations released by EPA regarding greenhouse gas emissions. EPA’s decision to regulate greenhouse gas emissions was a result of the Supreme Court case Massachusetts v. EPA, in which a 5-4 majority ruled that EPA must regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. The Bush administration opposed EPA’s proposal arguing the new regulations were beyond the oringinal intent of the Clean Air Act. The policy memo quotes several different heads of executive agencies, citing their concerns about the EPA’s proposed regulation and its effects.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Environment & Climate News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland Institute Policy Analyst Taylor Smith at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.