Air Pollution Control: Progress and Prospects

November 21, 1980

Report Outline
Review of Clean Air Laws
New Political Alignments
Assessment of the Seventies
Prospects for the Future
Special Focus

Review of Clean Air Laws

Implications of Ronald Reagan's Victory

Clean air legislation, the most far-reaching and costly of the pollution abatement laws enacted during the 1970s, comes up for renewal in 1981. Until recently, environmental lobbyists expressed confidence that changes in the clean air laws would be minor. Representatives of industries affected by the laws seemed to agree. But with the election of Ronald Reagan as president and the defeat of many Democrats in House and Senate races, all bets are off. After Jan. 20, the White House will be occupied by a man who has promised to re-write the clean air laws in collaboration with industry. In Congress, the balance of power will shift to the advantage of those who believe government regulations of all kinds must be cut.

At the Democratic National Convention last summer, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., aroused peals of laughter when he quoted Reagan as saying that “80 percent of our air pollution comes from plants and trees.” Most of the delegates no doubt assumed this was a statement Reagan would prefer to forget. But speaking Oct. 7 in Steubenville, Ohio, Reagan reminded his supporters of Kennedy's remarks and defended his original position: “First of all, I didn't say 80 percent. I said 92 percent — pardon me, 93 percent. And I didn't say air pollution; I said oxides of nitrogen. And I am right. Growing and decaying vegetation in this land are responsible for 93 percent of the oxides of nitrogen.” In the same speech, Reagan said he suspected that the eruption of Mount St. Helens had released more sulfur dioxide into the air in just a few months “than has been released in the last 10 years of automobile driving or things of that kind….” Later that day, Reagan told an audience in Youngstown, Ohio, that air pollution “has been substantially controlled.”

The same day Reagan was promising Ohio audiences that he would revise clean air laws in consultation with the coal and steel industries, the Los Angeles area was in the second week of the worst smog episode in recent memory. Carter officials lost no time in taking Reagan to task for his views. Douglas M. Costle, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said that Reagan had confused nitrogen dioxide, a regulated pollutant, with nitrous oxides, which are harmless products of plant respiration. Gus Speth, chairman of the president's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), pointed out that soil bacteria — not trees — are the primary source of nitrous oxides. Calling Reagan's remarks “strange and bewildering,” Speth said that human sources emit sulfur dioxide at a rate 40 times as high as Mount St. Helens, and he reminded Americans that power plants — not cars, as Reagan had implied — are the principal source of sulfur pollutants.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Air Pollution
Nov. 13, 2015  Air Pollution and Climate Change
Nov. 14, 2003  Air Pollution Conflict
Jan. 26, 2001  Global Warming Treaty
Mar. 07, 1997  New Air Quality Standards
Nov. 01, 1996  Global Warming
Oct. 27, 1995  Indoor Air Pollution
Apr. 03, 1992  Ozone Depletion
Mar. 08, 1991  Acid Rain: New Approach to Old Problem
Nov. 27, 1987  Air Pollution Countdown
Apr. 10, 1987  Ozone Mystery
Mar. 07, 1986  Acid Rain
Oct. 16, 1981  Wood Fuel's Developing Market
Nov. 21, 1980  Air Pollution Control: Progress and Prospects
Jun. 20, 1980  Acid Rain
Mar. 19, 1976  Ozone Controversy
Apr. 26, 1967  Air Pollution: Rising Threat
Jan. 08, 1964  Air Contamination
Jan. 14, 1959  Cleaner Air
Apr. 06, 1955  Poisoned Air
Aug. 26, 1949  Air Pollution
Air Pollution