Why is there a Clean Air Act? Why are their EPA regulations? They’re not there because government bureaucrats just love to hurt profits and get in the way of healthy commerce.
The regulations we now have for protecting the air we breathe come from a long history of what happens when you don't provide that protection.
[St. Louis] city dwellers woke up on Nov. 28, 1939, in a thick fog of acrid coal smoke. Suburbanites heading to work saw a low dome of darkness covering neighborhoods east of Kingshighway.
In a streetcar downtown at 8 a.m., a commuter told the driver, "Let me off at 13th and Washington - if you can find it." Motorists drove slowly with headlights on. Streetlights, still on, made ghostly glows.
It took a decade before St. Louis passed regulations against burning coal without first treating it to decrease smoke. The law was called “a treasonable act” by Illinois mine workers.
There was nothing magic about the coal being burned in the Midwest in 1939. It was the same kind of coal mined in the Illinois Basin or the Appalachians today. The same kind of coal burned in much of China.
Major cities across northern China choked Monday under a blanket of smog so thick that industries were ordered shut down and air and ground traffic was disrupted.
Untreated, high-sulfur coal doesn’t just cause smog. One of the ways people dealt with the pollution between the 1940s and the establishment of the Clean Air Act was simple—build taller smokestacks. That helped move the pollution into winds that carried Midwest pollution north and east. Even after regulations reduced the amount of “fly ash” and smoke being pumped from those smokestacks, the sulfur continued to go out in the form of SO2 gas. That sulfur came back to earth as acid rain. By the early 1970s, some of the rain falling in New England had a pH similar to cider vinegar. It took until 1989 for amendments to the Clean Air Act to introduce a cap and trade system that encouraged plants to reduce sulfur emissions.
Power plants at the time predicted wild increases in electricity cost, and called the goals “unobtainable.” But twenty years later, acid rain had been reduced by 65 percent, SO2 emissions met the national targets ahead of schedule, and electric rates had actually declined. Once they started, plants found reducing SO2 cheap enough that the market for SO2 certificates eventually collapsed.
The Clean Air Act, both in its initial and amended forms, is a great example of a regulation that has worked to address a widely recognized problem. And the 1989 amendments were a sterling example of how scientists could provide data, legislators could implement solutions, and regulators could refine details—all in a way that saved forests, rivers, lakes and lives. The SO2 cap and trade system is a near-perfect analog to how CO2 could be handled under existing regulations.
However, under the Trump administration, there’s a very real chance that these regulations will either be rolled back or not enforced in the name of job creation. Conditions in China provide all-too-visible evidence that even modern power plants, when operated without strict requirements to reduce pollution, can hurl us right back to that smoky Tuesday in 1939.
China also provides some insight into just how a government more interested in producing output than safeguarding health might treat the results.
Earlier this month, Beijing authorities caused a stir when a draft of the Beijing Meteorological Disasters Prevention and Control Regulations defined smog as a meteorological disaster mainly caused by haze, blizzards or unfavorable meteorological conditions.
It’s not pollution. It’s weather.