The 35th birthday of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) passed last December 2 with little fanfare. EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson noted at the time that, "Over the last three and a half decades, through the use of innovative and collaborative approaches to environmental protection and a commitment to responsible stewardship, we have made remarkable progress in our ongoing effort to make the air cleaner, water purer, and the land better protected."

He is surely correct. It’s safe to say that no government agency has played a more pivotal role in our collective health and welfare—and that of our children—than the EPA, so credit is due. We are all better off for it. That’s not to say the progress hasn’t been slowed by controversy—some deserved, but most the natural consequence of balancing emerging science with politics.

The bad old days

Most Americans aren’t old enough to remember how bad air, water, and pesticide pollution were in the 1960s. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, attacked the indiscriminate use of pesticides and began a revolution in public opinion—especially when she noted that "the common salad bowl may easily present a combination of organic phosphate insecticides" that could interact with lethal consequences. Seemingly for the first time, people were aghast at the destruction of nature and began to band together to demand that the government take action to protect their health.

When the world’s environmental problems began to draw international attention, the blame game began. In May 1969, United Nations Secretary-General U Thant gave the planet only 10 years to avert environmental disaster and blamed the lion’s share of the pending planetary catastrophe on the U.S. That same year, Under Secretary of the Interior Russell E. Train noted, "If environmental deterioration is permitted to continue and increase at present rates, [man] wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell [of surviving]."

As environmental consciousness became one of the defining issues of the era, President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act on New Year’s Day 1970 and named Train (a future EPA administrator) chairman of the first Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). By December of that year, the CEQ had become the EPA, and the Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1970 had become the law of the land. That it took less than a year from formation of the CEQ to passage of the CAA showed how quickly government could respond to a grass-roots idea whose time had come.

Three and counting

Speaking of anniversaries, three years have passed since President Bush sent his Clear Skies initiative to Congress, where it has fallen victim to dueling experts and agendas. One camp contends that any forward-looking air-pollution law should also target power plants’ CO2 emissions because of their purported link to climate change. On the other side are folks like Bruce Josten, executive VP for government affairs of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Josten says his organization opposes regulating greenhouse gas emissions because doing so would impose crippling costs on USA Inc. He says U.S. private-sector expenditures on technologies to reduce climate change already top those of all other countries combined. "Rather than tank the entire American economy and kill off millions of jobs, our concern is how to . . . balance [environmental protection and] economic growth," Josten said. "That’s what we’re trying to figure out."

Competing cost-benefit analyses

Adding to the Clear Skies controversy is a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report underscoring EPA findings that alternative bills could produce benefits "far outweighing" costs. CRS is a branch of the Library of Congress. The CRS report, "Cost and Benefits of Clear Skies: EPA’s Analysis of Multi-Pollutant Clean Air Bills," reexamined data touted by the EPA in October as the most thorough on legislation aimed at reducing air pollution from fossil fuel–fired power generation.

In addition to the Clear Skies bill as amended, the EPA analysis looked at two Senate bills more ambitious than Clear Skies. The CRS said its "reanalysis" indicates that Clear Skies would have "negligible incremental costs and add benefits of $6 billion in 2010 and $3 billion in 2020." So far, so good. The two competing bills sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) require steeper cuts and shorter deadlines. According to the EPA, Carper’s bill would produce annual benefits five to eight times larger than those of Clear Skies at a yearly cost between $3 billion and $4.2 billion. Jeffords’ more-restrictive alternative would produce benefits 10 and 16 times greater, imposing costs between $18.1 billion and $23.6 billion.

Faint praise

But the CRS concluded that the EPA’s analysis isn’t all that useful. The CRS says it penalizes short-term pollution reduction schedules for mercury found in the alternatives to Clear Skies and fails to consider how natural gas price volatility might impact the costs of plant air-pollution control. "The result is an analysis that some will argue is no longer sufficiently up to date to contribute substantively to congressional debate," the CRS report said. Ouch: That’s going to leave a mark.

So the Clear Skies bill remains stalled in the Senate, with the bill’s co-sponsors—Senators James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio)—"still waiting for a workable solution to be offered by the [Democrats]." Situation normal.

Where is a Rachel Carson when you need one?