States choose to protect our health — the EPA should not stand in the way
For decades, states like my home of Maryland had the authority under the Clean Air Act to adopt stronger air pollution standards than those set by the federal government in order to protect the health of their residents. As the mother of two young girls, I appreciate that our lawmakers opted to ensure that all cars sold here would meet the most stringent tailpipe pollution standards in the country.
Reducing tailpipe pollution is much-needed in Maryland, as it is in every state that is allowed to sign onto the more strict California standards. When I talk to my kids about air pollution, they immediately identify cars and trucks as the biggest culprit. Though their perspective might be narrow — their view from our bus stop on a busy state highway — they aren’t wrong.
Throughout the country, air quality has been improving over the years, but it has a long way to go. According to the latest “State of the Air” report from the American Lung Association, six Maryland counties received failing grades for ozone pollution, which is caused primarily by tailpipe pollution. Montgomery County, where I live, received a “C.” Only one Maryland county got an “A.” This is typical throughout the clean cars states. Our children deserve better than this. They are most vulnerable to the dangerous exhaust from cars and trucks — their lungs are still developing and ozone pollution increases the risk of long-term chronic respiratory and cardiovascular ailments like asthma and heart disease.
And then there are the climate impacts. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) own analysis, the transportation sector is now the largest source of climate-warming carbon pollution. Throughout the Eastern U.S., we’re already experiencing the intensifying storms and increased flooding that are a result of climate change, and out West the impacts of long-term drought and desertification are already being felt and are often fatal. Our coastal communities are at risk of being inundated by rising seas. Our urban areas are suffering from extreme heat as 90-degree days occur with increasing regularity. To do our part to slow these climate impacts, we simply must cut emissions from cars and trucks.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration took us several steps backwards in the fight to clean up our air. If allowed to stand, these attacks on our health would greenlight automakers to sell dirtier, more polluting cars nationally, while stripping states like mine of the ability to enforce tougher standards locally.
First, the EPA formally revoked a Clean Air Act waiver that allowed California to set stronger carbon pollution standards, which other states were allowed to adopt. Meanwhile, the administration significantly weakened the federal clean car standards.
For all Americans, this would mean dirtier air, increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and more expensive commutes. For the 14 states and the District of Columbia, all of which have opted in to California’s standards, there would no longer be any backstop to ensure cleaner air.
These actions by Trump’s EPA were unprecedented — a Clean Air Act waiver had never before been revoked, and vehicle emissions standards had never been weakened. Because they are both currently held up in legal battles, the current EPA could make things right before any real damage is done.
Thankfully, President Biden’s EPA has already proposed to restore states’ authority to clean up car pollution. That’s why I testified this week — alongside dozens of other moms from all over the country — at a virtual public hearing about this proposal. This hearing is EPA’s first climate-related public hearing since Biden took office, and it’s a harbinger of the massive public support for addressing the climate crisis that is threatening our children’s health and future, with disproportionate impacts on Black communities and communities of color.
But if we really want to safeguard every child’s right to breathe clean air, restoring state clean air authority is just the beginning. It’s critical that the EPA get to work immediately on more ambitious tailpipe emission standards nationwide. Stronger standards will help keep the air clean for our kids’ health. In fact, the health impact of Trump’s rollback of federal clean car standards has been studied, and predictions are grim. The rollback would, by mid-century, cause 18,500 premature deaths and more than 250,000 more asthma attacks, as a result of the extra air pollution. Stronger federal standards for tailpipe pollution will therefore, very literally, save lives in the communities we love.
The EPA can and must protect all Americans from dangerous tailpipe pollution with the strongest possible clean car standards. But in the meantime, the agency should allow states to once again protect clean air in their communities, save their drivers more money at the gas pump, and do their part to combat the climate crisis. Until the federal government ensures clean cars for all, give states back our legally-granted authority to preserve clean air.
Elizabeth Brandt is a field manager for Moms Clean Air Force, an organization that is made up of parents standing up against air and climate pollution for their children’s health.
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