On the very day that millions of Americans went to the polls, and after a presidential election campaign in which the environment was little more than a peripheral issue, the U.S. Supreme Court was busy hearing arguments in the business lobby's continuing attack on clean-air regulations.
There was irony in the timing, given that the campaign clashes of Al Gore and George W. Bush on the environment were on such comparatively isolated matters as whether Mr. Bush was responsible for smog in Houston, and should the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be opened for oil drilling.
Although it never became even a minor campaign issue, there was a stark choice between the candidates on the case before the Supreme Court. Mr. Bush sided with the business folks, while Mr. Gore stood with government regulators.
The American Trucking Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers want the court to limit the authority of the federal Environmental Protection Agency to set national air-quality regulations based solely on public-health considerations, as specified in the 1970 Clean Air Act. They contend that Congress unconstitutionally delegated too much rule-making power to the EPA, and that the regulatory agency failed to take into account the cost to industry of meeting the standards.
Put another way, the “cost-benefit analysis” sought by the business groups would put a price tag on the health of all Americans.
The battleground in this case is the EPA's 1997 requirement to cut smog and soot pollution by one-third. The truckers contend that meeting the regulations will cost anywhere from $45 million to $100 million and, anyway, aren't justified from a public-health standpoint. To the contrary, EPA Director Carol Browner says the rules are justified by scientific studies that have been repeatedly confirmed.
It's certain from the language of the Clean Air Act that, in a contest between the cost of regulation and the cost to public health, Congress intended to come down on the side of health. And the EPA already is required to publish cost-benefit studies every two years. A 1999 study predicted that, by 2010, the environmental benefits of 1990 amendments to the clean-air law - chiefly in disease prevention - will have outweighed the costs by a ratio of 4 to 1. This means, among other things, preventing 23,000 more people from dying from respiratory problems brought on by dirty air, plus alleviation of such medical maladies as chronic asthma and bronchitis.
The contention that Congress can't delegate regulatory powers also is a spurious claim, apparently being advanced in hopes of calling into doubt not just the EPA but all government regulation. Abandonment of regulatory policies is clearly not justified. We have only to look at the problems visited on the traveling public by airline deregulation to know that's a crock.