WITH A CLEAR WHIFF of pre-electoral timeliness, Clear the Air, an environmental lobby group, last week published a report that attached precise health figures to various pollution-control plans now on the table. With the assistance of the same research firm that conducts studies for the Environmental Protection Agency, the group estimated that the Bush administration's plan to cut power plant emissions would, in effect, result in 2,000 to 8,000 more deaths from respiratory diseases annually than would two more aggressive bills proposed in the Senate. The analysis also showed, they said, that of the 24,000 people who die every year supposedly because of air pollution resulting from power plant emissions, most are in three electoral swing states: Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.
These apparently dramatic figures hide a number of other facts. First, Congress has showed no interest either in the president's bill to reduce emissions or in the other two; second, air pollution has declined in many parts of the country over the past several years, which explains why there is so little momentum on the issue; and third, it is far from clear that power plant emissions are always the most important source of air pollution. In the Washington metropolitan area, for example, where air pollution levels are still very high by national standards, the decisive majority of air pollution comes from cars and off-road vehicles. Cars alone, in fact, account for nearly half of one air pollutant, nitrogen oxide, and a third of two others.
The air would be cleaner here and elsewhere if plant emissions were reduced. But it is still surprising how little effort there has been from the federal government or from Detroit or from Washington-area governments to reduce the pollutants in automobile emissions. By contrast, California has drafted a plan to require automakers to cut the amounts of air pollutants emitted by their new vehicles by up to 30 percent over the next decade. A group of East Coast states -- including New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut -- say they may follow California's auto emissions rules instead of the federal government's. Rather than sit back and bemoan the Bush administration's failure to further cut power-plant emissions, the District, Maryland and Virginia should join the revolution and do the same.