Center for Progressive Reform

Clean Air

Fighting for Clean Air

Dirty air kills. Thousands of Americans die each year from causes related to air pollution, and many more become sick. Despite progress in the fight against air pollution, we still have a very long way to go. The principal law governing air pollution is the Clean Air Act. Passed in 1970 in response to growing public concerns about visible and unhealthy levels of air pollution, the law enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support. It boldly sought to eliminate the negative health effects of air pollution for all American citizens by 1975. Despite some success in addressing many of the worst pollution problems, more than 30 years after that target date, Americans in large parts of the country still breathe air that produces negative health effects, including death.

The Clean Air Act's Unfulfilled Promise

Among the Clean Air Act's many provisions is one that requires the Environmental Protection Agency to control smog by periodically reviewing recent scientific evidence and then setting maximum acceptable levels for ground level ozone. More specifically, the law calls for reviews every five years, but the Bush Administration managed to let a 1997 standard go unaddressed for a full 11 years, before finally proposing a standard so feeble that EPA's scientific advisory panel deemed unhealthy.

Environmental organizations brought suit against EPA to force it to follow the science and produce a stricter standard. Enter President Obama, whose EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, managed to negotiate a halt to the lawsuits by promising that EPA would issue a new standard by 2010. EPA missed the deadline, but did in July 2011 send a new and tighter standard to the White Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (Cass Sunstein's office) for approval. There followed a series of meetings between OIRA and industry, some of which were joined by White House Chief of Staff William Daley. Finally on September 2, 2011, President Obama announced that he had directed EPA to withdraw the new standards and to wait until 2013 to issue new ones, meaning that the 1997 standard will remain in effect until at least then. EPA's scientists estimate that this more permissive standard will cost several thousand Americans their lives each year.

CPR Member Scholars protested what many called a "capitulation" by the President.  Read op-eds by Rena Steinzor (Baltimore Sun), David Driesen (Syracuse Post-Standard), and Thomas McGarity (Houston Chronicle), and see several Member Scholar blog posts

Learn more about CPR Member Scholars’ work to make sure all Americans have clean air to breathe:


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