Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Clean Air's High Cost

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Clean Air's High Cost

Article excerpt

President Clinton has approved the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed new air quality standards after a divisive debate within his own ranks. Now Congress will wage its own battle over the controversial standards. Much is at stake.

Anyone who has wheezed along behind a truck's exhaust fumes or stood in line behind a cigar smoker knows at least something about air pollution. Being able to breathe clean air surely ranks near the top of our needs. We can't very well buy clean air the way we can buy pickles, although as a last-gasp strategy in heavily polluted cities like Mexico City, enterprising outfits have considered marketing five-minute shots of clean air from sidewalk vending machines.

Instead, we turn to government to issue regulations requiring firms to restrict pollutants from their operations and products. These firms then increase their prices to cover the pollution control costs, just as they do when raw material prices rise. When government regulations get the job done sensibly, these higher prices reflect good public policy. The EPA's decade-old regulation forcing refiners to stop adding lead to gasoline was a prudent way to remove hazardous lead particles from exhaust fumes. This rule's substantial costs were far exceeded by the important public health gains that followed. Good intentions gone awry Unfortunately, many regulatory initiatives lack this type of common sense return on the investment costs they impose. The Clean Air Act directs the EPA to adopt pollution regulations that protect public health regardless of how costly or infeasible they may be. The two multibillion-dollar air-quality proposals approved by Mr. Clinton are a vivid and troublesome example of good intentions going awry. If the EPA adopts its proposed new standards for airborne particulates (soot) and ozone (smog), firms soon will find it necessary to develop costly new controls that will provide far less health protection than could be produced from other regulatory priorities. The EPA's current strategy amounts to a coupling of noble intentions with tunnel vision. Costs are to be heaped on producers as, one by one, a variety of pollutants are reduced down to nearly zero risk levels. …

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