THE HOUSE Energy and Commerce Committee is considering two profoundly different views of how to amend the Clean Air Act. One is offered by its environment subcommittee chairman, Henry Waxman, who represents Los Angeles, where hazardous air alerts are a regular fact of life. The other is the work of the committee's powerful chairman, John Dingell, from Dearborn, Mich., headquarters of Ford Motor Co., an area where unemployment is twice the national average.
The Dingell bill would slow progress toward cleaner air, and in some cases reverse the downward trend of pollutant concentrations. It would raise allowed emissions levels that have already been met, allow industries to turn off pollution control equipment that is already installed, extend compliance deadlines by six to 11 years and relax protections for pristine areas, including national parks and wilderness.
The Waxman bill would make modest but significant improvements to some of the most red-tape- ridden and least effective provisions of the current law. It would allow limited deadline extensions for areas that "cannot possibly" meet the 1982 standards. And it would add new provisions to accelerate regulation of potentially cancer-causing pollutants and institute a 10-year program to control acid rain.
The committee's most important choice is whether to approve the doubling of currently allowed auto emissions for carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides that the Dingell bill proposes. Though nearly all 1981 model-year cars met these standards, Detroit wants the standards rolled back to the 1980 levels. The doubled nitrogen level would allow diesel engines to be introduced without additional controls, a significant change that, for technical reasons, would benefit General Motors and foreign makers. Both increased levels would allow some pollution control equipment to be removed, but the resulting price reductions would amount to about the cost of a mechanical sunroof, not enough to make a difference in new-car sales or a significant improvement in the industry's financial woes.
The industry itself does not expect that result. A General Motors spokesman told the committee that the amendments should be approved because Detroit has had to bear an undue share of the burden of cleaning up the nation's air. Whether that is true or not, it is hardly a reason to undo a substantial environmental achievement whose principal costs--for research, development and retooling--have already been made and must be amortized in any case.
Nor is the argument that most parts of the country already meet the nitrogen oxide standard a convincing one. Nitrogen oxide is a contributor to the troubling acid rain phenomenon, the full impact of which is still unknown. It also contributes to ozone, which, in addition to its health effects is just now being shown to cause large economic losses--up to $10 billion annually--to agriculture and forestry. Until acid rain and ozone effects are more fully understood, there is ground for serious debate over how much additional regulation is warranted. But it makes no sense to make either phenomenon worse, and without a substantial offsetting benefit.
Present air pollution standards are not holy writ. If there were good reasons for doing so, they could be temporarily lowered without permanent damage. If rolling back auto emissions standards would bring back assembly line jobs and help the industry back to its feet, for example, it would be worth doing. As it is, however, the increases would impose a substantial cost on air quality, with little or no benefit to anyone.