America Needs Better Air But Businesses Don’t Want to Clean Up

Carl Pope
5 min readFeb 13, 2024

“This article earlier published in Bloomberg”

The Environmental Protection Agency moved this week to tighten limits on fine industrial particles, one of the most common and deadliest forms of air pollution. This is both welcome and overdue. But as we have seen since the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act two years ago, legislation and rulemaking to ensure Americans’ health is often only the beginning of a lengthy and contentious process.

Biden’s squeezing the IRA through Congress, over a unified Republican opposition was a signature achievement of his presidency. But a major story since, unfortunately, has been about obstacles to permitting new energy facilities — even projects with federal support, and even if the technology is cleaner and cheaper.

Building anything new raises significant and sometimes understandable challenges. Local citizens often fight changes in their neighborhoods. Proposals for clean energy projects like solar and wind generation dangle for years. The lengthy time in getting any sort of building permit is a significant cause of America’s housing crisis.

Yet since the IRA passed, the biggest challenge to a historic upgrading of America’s outmoded infrastructure has been thrown down not by residents’ concerns or environmental groups — but by the business community, which paradoxically has a great deal to gain from a modernized industrial system. Indeed, business groups are already talking about legal challenges to this week’s announcement.

The Biden administration, following federal law, has declared that 200 US counties — including many of the nation’s most populous — need to clean up and modernize an enormous range of power stations, steel blast furnaces, paper mills, chemical plants, oil pipelines and waste disposal incinerators. These facilities, often very old, have been directly linked to damaging the health and causing deaths of people who live near them — sacrificing an estimated 4,200 American lives each year. The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy are offering billions of dollars of grants and loans to replace polluting factories and power plants with new, low pollution technologies.

Yet instead of embracing this opportunity, business groups and corporations are creating a literal roadblock. The National Association of Manufacturers recently launched a campaign arguing that the EPA should allow outmoded facilities to keep operating despite the proven health effects on locals. The Chamber of Commerce joined it. Earlier, a group of 70 House Republicans had urged the EPA not to use the

latest science in setting air-quality standards. PacifiCorp, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, has objected to the required installation in Utah of nitrogen oxide control equipment commonly used in other states. Pipeline behemoth Kinder Morgan objects to modernizing its pumping stations, claiming it would cost the company $4.1 billion.

One of the most insidious arguments from the EPA’s critics is that we should stop trying to protect vulnerable Americans from toxic pollution because less-industrialized nations lag in doing so. The American Forest & Paper Association has explicitly argued that the US should tie its pollution standards — based on an index measuring PM2.5, or fine inhalable particles with diameters 2.5 micrometers and smaller — to those of other countries. “Our average ambient level of PM2.5 in this country is 8; in China and India, it’s about 5 to 6 times that level,” said Heidi Brock, the group’s president. “What sense does it make to offshore jobs from this country, where we have some of the cleanest air on the planet?”

Such comments ignore several facts. First, since 1970 it has been illegal for states to allow levels of pollution that cause significant mortality. Second, the issue is not average national levels of pollution, but the impact on people living in heavily polluted areas. In some places, Americans do have some of the cleanest air on the planet; in others, we have some of the dirtiest.

Bakersfield, California, for example, regularly scores PM2.5 levels over 18, well above the level science shows is safe. Counties with PM2.5 pollution levels at or below 8 will have to do nothing under the EPA’s proposals. Business is advocating permanent delays in upgrading clean air infrastructure anywhere in the US, based on the notion that as long as fewer Americans are dying in Bakersfield than Indians are in Delhi that’s OK.

Any community trying to protect its population from deadly industrial pollution has three choices:

1. Keep industry out, import your goods and power.

2. Clean up all facilities, dirtiest first.

3. Make it hard to build new plants and hope the old ones are eventually retired.

In enacting the 1970 Clean Air Act the US rejected Option 1. Industry also successfully argued against Option 2. That forced the country to lean heavily on Option 3. We never overcome that mistake. (And I bear part of the guilt since I lobbied for the eventual bill.) Bakersfield just began hosting the world’s largest joint solar panel- battery storage facility. That’s not the source of the city’s toxic pollution. That comes from Kern County’s 22,000 oldest injection oil wells, each one pumping out a devil’s brew of emissions while yielding an average of about 10 barrels (!) of oil a day each. (Nationally, wells at the end of their life produce less than 7% of America’s oil and gas, but more than half of total oilfield methane pollution.) To protect health, you have to clean up pollution at its sources — largely old industrial facilities — not just limit the construction of new ones.

New facilities must be clean — and some are not: Shell has already paid $10 million in fines for pollution violations at its new Pennsylvania ethane facility — but even if they are, they ca make up for the massive danger from old ones. Putting the burden solely on them makes America less innovative, less competitive, and deadlier.

Imagine this scenario: At the next hearing for a proposed advanced battery factory or transmission line, the project proponent also brings along a package of pollution cleanup investments, or of state- approved cuts on emissions from existing factories or power plants. Imagine, too, that these not only balanced the environmental stress feared from the facility, but made a significant contribution to slashing existing health risks — say, cutting five times as much particulate matter as the traffic from the new project might generate? Might we not start seeing an America suddenly eager for faster change — of communities wanting new projects?

Resistance to modernizing our old economy is actually the biggest source of our infrastructure permitting problem. Cleaning up outdated stuff, regularly and systematically, is the only remedy that will work.



Carl Pope

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, former executive director & chairman Sierra Club and Senior Climate Advisor to Michael Bloomberg