When I got my driver’s license at 17, I was curious about how things worked under the hood of the family’s battered ’63 Ford Fairlane station wagon. But I wasn’t a car-guy. I really just wanted to drive –go out with my friends on Saturday night and get home again without breaking down. With over 98-thousand miles logged, that clunker was near death. Every time it pulled out of the driveway, coughing up nasty clouds from its tailpipe, there was no certainty it would ever return. That was 1971.
A Car-Guy’s Insight
Though I love to drive, I’m still not a car-guy. I defer to a very good mechanic-technician. I trust him. He takes the time to explain repairs, to show me the problem with a part he replaced and tell me why it gave out. I like that, even if I don’t always understand what he’s talking about. I like his enthusiasm and love of cars.
Last August, during the annual inspection of my late-model station wagon, he told me how excited he was about the future of the automobile: the promise of electric cars, battery improvements, near-zero emissions and high-mileage. He was all for “the government” pushing for higher auto standards because “it has actually worked” even though industry always whines and drags its feet. He cited the example of the catalytic converter.
Regulation to Innovation to Breathable Air
The catalytic converter is part of the exhaust system on every car. As engine exhaust passes through it, three toxic compounds are rendered harmless. Along with the phase out of leaded gasoline, this device, conceptualized in the 1950s and refined in the 1970s, had an enormous impact on eliminating smog in cities and it enabled auto manufacturers to meet the stricter emission requirements of the Clean Air Act of 1970 — requirements that the industry initially fought.
Industry Fears Unfounded
Why did the auto industry fight the Clean Air Act of 1970? Among other reasons: too expensive.
“In an address last week to stockholders (Henry Ford II) said that the average motorist could expect to spend $475 more for his car in 1978 than for a 1974 model (under) the original exhaust emissions standards set by the Clean Air Act of 1970. He said the results might not be worth the price.” — NY Times, May 16, 1974
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce even warned that “entire industries might collapse” because of the economic effects of the new anti-pollution laws.
Entire industries did not collapse. The price to consumers was not nearly as much as Mr. Ford predicted. Today, no one would reasonably argue that the dramatic improvement in air quality was not worth the cost. Obvious, right?
Dangerous Attack Awaits
But the “too expensive” argument is being used again, this time to attack the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for Power Plants, which is slated to go into effect next month. This rule will finally place a limit on the amount of mercury and other toxics that power plants can emit to our air.
Will it have a cost?
Will the benefits outweigh the cost?
Absolutely. It will save thousands of lives every year, and it is essential to protect the health of our children and the environment.
However, lying in wait is a killer resolution (S.J. Res. 37), introduced by Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla), that would not only nullify the EPA’s life-saving standards, but would permanently block the EPA from issuing any “substantially similar” mercury and air toxics protections in the future without express Congressional authorization. This is lethal. Please be sure to contact your representative to express your opposition to this resolution and your support for MATS for Power Plants.
That old 1963 family station wagon didn’t come with a pollution control device, obviously. But it didn’t come with seatbelts either. When they became available, my dad had his car-guy retrofit those in the front and back seats. It cost money, and money was always tight. But he knew that some things are just worth the price.
Credit: Tracy Walker Illustration