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Energy Tomorrow Radio: Episode 111 - Myths and Regulations Surrounding Air Quality

Jane Van Ryan

Jane Van Ryan
Posted June 29, 2010

In today's episode, I interview Rich Trzupek, a principal consultant at Mostardi Platt Environmental, about the myths and regulations surrounding air quality in the United States and how both affect the economy.

Use the audio player below to listen to information about the article and follow along with the show notes. I hope you find the podcast informative.

00:17 Today we're going to address an urban myth--one of those old saws we hear rather frequently and never question. This myth involves the quality of the air we breathe everyday, and to give us the facts we've invited Rich Trzupek to join us on the telephone. Rich is a principal consultant at Mostardi Platt Environmental, which is a consulting firm, located in Oak Brook, Ill., and a blogger who specializes in science and the environment.

00:51 Rich, I think you'll be able to clarify a number of points for our listeners today. Let's start with the basics. We have more people in the United States than ever before, as well as more cars. Does this then mean that the air is dirtier than ever?

01:09 Rich Trzupek: I think that is the general impression most people have. But when you look at the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) statistics, specifically a graph on its website and below that traces air quality between 1980 and today, vehicle miles traveled, growth in energy consumption and growth in the economy, you see that while we travel twice as much today as we did in 1980, and the economy has grown about twice as much, the six principle air pollutants have decreased by more than half over that time. That's been a continuing trend since the Clean Air Act was enacted. The air has continually gotten cleaner and it's cleaner today than it ever has been in the industrialized era.


01:59 So it was the Clean Air Act that made the air clearer, better to breathe?

02:04 Rich Trzupek: Absolutely. That and then the original Clean Air Act in 1970 and the amendments passed in 1990 made significant in-roads into cleaning up the air.

02:15 But the EPA continues to tighten regulations governing ground-level, ozone and other pollutants. Isn't that a sign that we continue to have air quality problems?

02:26 Rich Trzupek: I think it's more of the sign that we have this regulatory beast to feed and I will include myself in that--my job exists because of this regulatory beast that needs to be fed. If at some point we would have said this is what clean air looks like and we're never going to change it, we would have been done a long time ago. But every time we meet one air quality goal, the agency dials it down. There's a lot of people in that bureaucratic structure who are engaged in continually dialing down the targets and that's really what's reflected in all these new standards.

03:09 So that feeds into the myth and keeps it so pervasive across all of our communities. The government isn't telling us, besides perhaps on the website, that the air is cleaner. Why don't they do that?

03:24 Rich Trzupek: Again, I think it's a matter of self-preservation. If you say we don't really need to do anything more than maintain anymore, it's hard to justify funding this massive bureaucratic structure we have, including the national EPA and state level agencies. There still needs to be work to do. I think that sounds harsher than I mean it because I think a lot of the people in the agencies are good people who understand we have done a lot, but they're getting pushed from both sides, including the industry that is saying enough is enough and the very active environmental groups that are always demanding more. The agency tries to walk a middle line, but that middle line is really continually revising the standards to demand more and more.

04:24 A recent Supreme Court ruling gave the EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. How could that affect air quality?

04:35 Rich Trzupek: If we think in terms of the traditional pollutants--what we call the criteria pollutants--it really won't affect it at all because the machinery in place that is currently reducing the amount of NOX (nitrogen oxides) or sulfur dioxides, it's not going to change no matter what we do about GHG emissions, those numbers are going to continue to drop. Now there could be an effect on the GHGs themselves based on that ruling, but I think that effect will be negligible in terms of affect on the environment and in terms of concentration of GHGs. I think it will be a bureaucratic nightmare and the biggest effect will be on the industry and the economy.

05:23 There are a number of other bills under consideration right now that could also affect the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air, but do you see those actually helping somehow, or again is this just overkill?

05:38 Rich Trzupek: I think given the state of GHG regulation in the country right now, it is completely overkill. It's a little known story that we have put into place a lot of mechanisms to reduce GHGs. Right now there are three big regional programs, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the East Coast, the Midwest Greenhouse Gas Accord and the Western Climate Initiative. All of these are designed to reduce GHG emissions as much or more than national cap and trade would. There are also renewable portfolio standards in many states that require continually reducing the use of fossil fuels. More than three quarters of the country is already committed to GHG reductions--massive GHG reductions. That being the case, I don't see any reason to further complicate the structure with some kind of a national cap and trade or have EPA regulate it through the Clean Air Act unless it's about something else, which as you know there's a lot of money in these programs and if it's about the Feds getting their piece of the pie, it's a different story. But in terms of reducing GHGs, I don't think it's going to make any difference at all.

07:04 What could possibly be the impact on the economy, on jobs and all of us that live in this country?

07:11 Rich Trzupek: We talk about the carbon trading programs as cap and tax and I think that's exactly right. When you start to increase the cost of energy by effectively laying a tax on it it's going to have an immense impact on both the economy and jobs--at a time when we really can least afford it.

07:33 The oil and natural gas industry believes that the Clean Air Act is simply not suitable for regulating GHGs. What's your opinion?

07:42 Rich Trzupek: It's definitely unsuitable and interestingly that's also EPA's opinion. When you look at what EPA's Administrator, Lisa Jackson, has written in terms of regulating GHGs under the Clean Air Act, she recognizes that the universe of sources that should be regulated under the Clean Air Act exceeds 1 million, which is a massive undertaking. Now to get around that, the EPA has promulgated the tailoring rule, which says rather than having a major source be 100 tons of CO2 emissions, we're going to say a major source, for the purposes of GHGs is 25,000 tons, which is great, but that's not what the Act says. There's serious question as to whether a regulatory agency can change the plain meaning of the statute. I don't think Lisa Jackson or the EPA wants to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act and I know the state EPA agencies don't want to because it's going to be a bureaucratic nightmare. I think it would freeze the system in many states, which are already understaffed. It would have a trickledown effect on industry and then industry would not be able to make normal changes and get the permits through that they need in order to progress. I think it would be a disaster.

09:16 But at the same time nobody wants the air to get dirtier, so we don't want abandon all the good that's come from both regulations and voluntary pollution reductions. In your opinion, how should the U.S. continue to protect air quality?

09:31 Rich Trzupek: I think at some point--and I think that point has passed--we need to say we have achieved our goal and that the air as it looks today and the standards we have achieved are clean air. If you do that, the agency's job is not to continue to dial down the standards, but to maintain what we have achieved and prioritize your efforts toward the bigger sources. The vast majority of the air pollution is related to the power industry because we're a fossil-powered nation and to cars and trucks. If we focus on that and stop looking at spending enormous amount of resources on regulating very small industries, I think we'll save a lot of money and will have as clean as a country as we have today. We should be very proud of what we have all achieved in cleaning up the air and making this such a remarkable success story.

10:36 Rich, thank you so much for setting the record straight on this very complicated and extremely important issue.

(Image Source: EPA)