Research & Commentary: U.S. Air Quality Has Dramatically Improved as Fossil Fuel Use Has Substantially Increased

Published December 7, 2018

A new report from the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) shows significant U.S. air quality improvement over the past fifty years, a period in which fossil fuel use has substantially increased.

Kathleen Hartnett White, TPPF’s director of the Armstrong Center for Energy & the Environment, and Brent Bennett, a policy analyst for TPPF’s Life: Powered project, produced The U.S. Leads the World in Clean Air: The Case for Environmental Optimism, which shows that major advances in emission control technology has allowed the United States to maintain pristine air quality while widespread economic expansion has taken place.

“From 1970 to 2017,” the report notes, “the aggregate emissions of the six criteria pollutants identified in the Clean Air Act have declined by 73 percent. This improvement has occurred alongside a 262 percent increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a 189 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled, and rising population and energy consumption. These achievements should be celebrated as a public policy success story, but instead the prevailing narrative among political and environmental leaders is one of environmental decline that can only be reversed with a more stringent regulatory approach.”

“In contrast to this doomsday narrative,” White and Bennett stress, “consider the data. Since 1990, the ambient concentrations of these six pollutants—measures of what we inhale with each breath—have decreased by an average of 64 percent. Ambient concentrations of lead, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide have declined by 98 percent, 88 percent, and 77 percent, respectively, since 1990. Airborne emissions of mercury and mercury compounds in the U.S. have declined by 74 percent since 2000. Ambient concentrations of benzene, a well-known carcinogen and the most widespread hazardous pollutant, declined by more than 66 percent from 1994 to 2013.”

“What made these achievements possible were advances in emissions control technologies and the economic prosperity that enabled the widespread implementation of those technologies, as well as the means to monitor their effect on air quality,” the authors conclude.

Just to highlight a few examples, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes coal-fired power plants equipped with advanced emission control technologies saw an 82 percent decrease in nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions between 1995 and 2017, while sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions were down 89 percent over that same period. From 2006 to 2016, the Energy Information Administration reported natural gas use increased by 26 percent, while over that same period EPA noted nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions decreased by 21 percent and SO2 emissions decreased by 66 percent. EPA’s latest “Greenhouse Gas Inventory” notes methane (CH4) emissions from natural gas and petroleum systems decreased by 14 percent from 1990 to 2016, even as production in these two industries increased by 50 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

“Fossil fuels further improve human health by making environmental protection both valued and financially possible, and by powering technologies that protect human health and extend lives,” note The Heartland Institute’s Joseph Bast and Peter Ferrara, in a brief on The Social Benefits of Fossil Fuels.

Air quality in the United States has reached a point where new regulations or tighter standards are no longer necessary. Rather than wasting billions of taxpayer dollars chasing away the last remaining molecules of a possible pollutant, lawmakers should refrain from passing new legislation and allow air quality to improve even further as technological advancements develop.

Additionally, policymakers should not force Americans to switch from fossil fuels to higher-cost, intermittent “renewable” electricity sources, such as wind or solar. The higher energy costs guaranteed by this switch would lead to slower economic growth, as affordable energy is the key to productivity growth and the production of virtually all goods and services. Therefore, elected officials and agency regulators at all levels of government should repeal subsidies, taxes, and regulations that jeopardize the use of fossil fuels.

The following documents provide more information about fossil fuels.

The U.S. Leads the World in Clean Air: The Case for Environmental Optimism
This paper from the Texas Public Policy Foundation examines how the United States achieved robust economic growth while dramatically reducing emissions of air pollutants. The paper states that these achievements should be celebrated as a public policy success story, but instead the prevailing narrative among political and environmental leaders is one of environmental decline that can only be reversed with a more stringent regulatory approach. Instead, the paper urges for the data to be considered and applied to the narrative.

The Social Benefits of Fossil Fuels
This Heartland Policy Brief by Joseph Bast and Peter Ferrara documents the many benefits from the historic and still ongoing use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are lifting billions of people out of poverty, reducing all the negative effects of poverty on human health, and vastly improving human well-being and safety by powering labor-saving and life-protecting technologies, such as air conditioning, modern medicine, and cars and trucks. They are dramatically increasing the quantity of food humans produce and improving the reliability of the food supply, directly benefiting human health. Further, fossil fuel emissions are possibly contributing to a “Greening of the Earth,” benefiting all the plants and wildlife on the planet.

Climate Change Reconsidered II: Fossil Fuels – Summary for Policymakers—summary-for-policymakers
In this fifth volume of the Climate Change Reconsidered series, 117 scientists, economists, and other experts assess the costs and benefits of the use of fossil fuels by reviewing scientific and economic literature on organic chemistry, climate science, public health, economic history, human security, and theoretical studies based on integrated assessment models (IAMs) and cost-benefit analysis (CBA).

Evaluating the Costs and Benefits of Renewable Portfolio Standards
This paper by Timothy J. Considine, a distinguished professor of energy economics at the School of Energy Resources and the Department of Economics and Finance at the University of Wyoming, examines the renewable portfolio standards (RPS) of 12 different states and concludes while RPS investments stimulate economic activity, the negative economic impacts associated with higher electricity prices offset the claimed economic advantages of these RPS investments.

Ten State Solutions to Emerging Issues
This Heartland Institute booklet explores solutions to the top public policy issues facing the states in 2018 and beyond in the areas of budget and taxes, education, energy and environment, health care, and constitutional reform. The solutions identified are proven reform ideas that have garnered significant support among the states and with legislators.

Debunking Four Persistent Myths about Hydraulic Fracturing
This Heartland Institute Policy Brief by Policy Analyst Timothy Benson and former Heartland communications intern Linnea Lueken outlines the basic elements of the fracking process and then refutes the four most widespread fracking myths, providing lawmakers and the public with the research and data they need to make informed decisions about hydraulic fracturing.

Less Carbon, Higher Prices: How California’s Climate Policies Affect Lower-Income Residents
This study from Jonathan Lesser of the Manhattan Institute argues California’s clean power regulations, including the state’s renewable power mandate, is a regressive tax that harms impoverished Californians more than any other group. 

The Status of Renewable Electricity Mandates in the States
The Institute for Energy Research finds states with renewable electricity mandates have on average 40 percent higher electricity rates than those without such mandates. 

What Happens to an Economy When Forced to Use Renewable Energy?
The Manhattan Institute conducted an economic analysis of the effects renewable portfolio standards (RPS) had on the average price of electricity in states with mandates compared to those without mandates. The study found residential and commercial electricity rates were significantly higher in states with RPS mandates than in states without them. 


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 subject, visit Environment & Climate News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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