Will this country ever be able to make more improvements in air quality?
This month brought another discouraging turn, as a U.S. Court of Appeals panel threw out a new Environmental Protection Agency rule intended to protect states from smog created outside their borders.
The rule resonates particularly in places like western Michigan, where several counties endure bad air as a result of emissions that originate in places like Chicago and Milwaukee. Smog that forms over Lake Michigan sometimes even moves into the central Upper Peninsula — where the air is normally about as clean as anywhere in the U.S.
Despite that, the Michigan attorney general's office joined those fighting the EPA. The New York Times also quoted U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, whose district lies along the Lake Michigan shoreline, as calling the court decision "a win for American families, who ... faced the threat of higher power bills."
Yes, continued work toward better air quality has a cost. For the most part it's worth it. Upton, for example, almost certainly has constituents with asthma who would welcome additional relief. One estimate said the new rule would prevent as many as 34,000 deaths a year, and the EPA estimated 240 million people would see health benefits from improved air quality.
The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule that the court rejected this month was itself a redo of a previous version — the 2005 Clean Air Interstate Rule — which also had been thrown out in court. At this rate, utilities, and the states that sometimes join them, will be dodging improvements forever.
After all, there will be technicalities to argue in almost any regulation. Apparently there are also an increasing number of judges ready to turn a sympathetic ear to such arguments.
Some of what the EPA hoped to accomplish with a rule about coal-fired power plants may happen naturally. The economics of coal look increasingly bad in light of newly developed U.S. natural gas supplies. But policy on air pollution will still matter.
The Obama administration has been adhering to the Clean Air Act in developing this rule and others. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who coincidentally released his energy plan recently, promises to overhaul the act with reforms that will "preserve our environmental gains." An overhaul may be in order, but people who wheeze through smoggy days may wish he'd aim higher.
-- Detroit Free Press