This past week brought some unwelcome, if not surprising, news to those of us who worry about air pollution in the United States. As NYT puts it,

“In a 2-to-1 ruling, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said the E.P.A. had exceeded its authority in the way it apportioned the cleanup work among 28 upwind states.”

The court cited two reasons for the Environmental Protection Agency’s exceeding its statutory authority. First, EPA was trying to create an emissions trading system to reduce the cost of mitigation. Second, EPA was trying to speed up implementation by not waiting for states to submit their own plans to reduce air pollution. According to two of the three judges, these features of the regulation contradict the Clean Air Act.

The decision underscores the poisonous effects of political paralysis for environmental policy. It is hard to imagine why anyone, except for the most radical critics of capitalism, who are in short supply in America, would oppose emissions trading to reduce the cost of pollution abatement. This is clearly in everyone’s interest. However, the Clean Air Act was not designed to allow for this possibility. Emissions trading requires legislation in the Congress, and this seems impossible given how hostile the Republicans are to any efforts to protect the environment.

Similarly, the emphasis on state rights to implement their own plans seems questionable in this case. The whole idea of the regulation was to protect fundamental state rights to clean air by forcing upwind polluters to clean up their act. From an economic perspective, emissions trading is also clearly superior to a collection of uncoordinated state action plans. Any state plan that is to significantly reduce air pollution must produce emissions reductions, so state action plans would amount to the same thing — except without the mutually profitable cost reduction from emissions trading.

This case says much about American environmental policy today. The federal government’s ability to protect Americans from deadly pollution depends on existing legislation. This legislation is robust to political challenges, and this has allowed federal governments to move forward even during difficult times. However, the system is far from optimal, and in the current political climate there is little hope for correction.

And so I end this post with yet another jab targeted at politicians. What can I say? Political science is a depressing profession.

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