An Uphill Drive: Technology Advances Will Allow Us to Further Reduce Tailpipe Emissions and Continue the Battle for Clean Air

By ord, Robert T. | Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

An Uphill Drive: Technology Advances Will Allow Us to Further Reduce Tailpipe Emissions and Continue the Battle for Clean Air


ord, Robert T., Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy


On December 21, 2000, Carol Browner received a standing ovation from several dozen clean-air advocates assembled to observe her final news conference. "Anyone who has ever driven behind a large truck or bus is familiar with the smell of diesel fuel and the clouds of thick exhaust emissions," the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator during the Clinton administration noted, as she outlined a bold plan to clean up diesel trucks and buses and diesel fuel. Under the EPA plan, new trucks and buses would be up to 95 percent cleaner than today's models. Diesel buses, Browner noted, would be as clean as those fueled by natural gas. (1)

The clean-diesel rule was the culmination of EPA efforts in recent years to clean up emissions from both gasoline- and diesel-fueled vehicles, including cars, buses, trucks, and sport utility vehicles, as well as the gasoline and diesel fuel itself. These efforts will lead to significant reductions of dangerous emissions during the next several decades. Public health will be greatly improved as a result. EPA calculated that the diesel rule alone would eventually prevent more than 8,000 premature deaths a year.

These tough EPA standards are a continuation of progress begun in 1970 under the Clean Air Act to reduce motor vehicle emissions and the resulting harm to public health. It is fair to say that control of motor vehicle pollution is one of the stellar accomplishments of the Clean Air Act.

Even though there are many more cars on the road being driven many more miles than in 1970, emissions from motor vehicles have been reduced since passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act. Driving, expressed as vehicle miles traveled, increased 140 percent between 1970 and 1999, yet automotive emissions of the three major pollutants--carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides--all dropped significantly during that time. (2)

Despite this progress, we still face significant challenges associated with emissions from gasoline and diesel engines--challenges that must be met if we are to fulfill the Clean Air Act's goal of making the air healthful for all Americans.

The Price of Pollution

Ever since Edwin Drake drilled the world's first oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, petroleum has been a mixed blessing. Within a year of Drake's discovery, the first internal combustion engine was built. Before long, cars replaced the horse and buggy. Trucks made shipping easier. Tractors changed the furrowed face of the old family farm.

But progress came with a price: pollution. By 1970, air pollution had become a national health problem. Residents in most of our major cities were routinely breathing harmful levels of air. A great proportion of the pollutants was produced by motor vehicles. EPA statistics showed, for example, that nearly 80 percent of all carbon monoxide emissions in 1970 came from motor vehicles, as did more than 80 percent of lead emissions and more than 40 percent of smog-forming nitrogen oxides emissions. (3)

1970 was a watershed year for clean air. A grassroots environmental movement swept over the nation, we held our first Earth Day, and political momentum began to build for a tough new air pollution law. That summer, Washington, D.C., suffered the worst and longest air-pollution episode in its history. Caught up in the spirit of the times, a coalition of labor and environmental groups went so far as to call for the prohibition of the internal combustion engine.

Using this backdrop as political leverage, members of the Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution, led by Senator Edmund S. Muskie (D-ME), prodded a reluctant President Nixon and an equally reluctant House of Representatives to accept the landmark Clean Air Act of 1970.

To back up the three fundamental principles of the 1970 law--that protection of public health was the primary goal, that deadlines were necessary so the American people could know when their health would be protected, and that industry should be required to apply the best technology available--Senator Muskie called on the automobile industry to reduce its emissions by 90 percent within five years--even though no technology had yet been demonstrated that could achieve such a dramatic cleanup. …

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An Uphill Drive: Technology Advances Will Allow Us to Further Reduce Tailpipe Emissions and Continue the Battle for Clean Air
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