Factory emissions plummeted 60% since 1990 — study

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Emissions of sulfur dioxide and other common pollutants from U.S. factories plunged by some 60 percent between 1990 and 2008, according to a new study that largely credits the decline to tighter environmental regulations.

While the value of manufacturing output rose 30 percent during the same period, companies took “significant steps to clean up their production processes,” Reed Walker, a University of California, Berkeley, economist who co-authored the study, said in a news release last week.

Walker and Joseph Shapiro, another economist now at Berkeley, explored other possible explanations for the drop in pollution, but they ultimately found factors such as productivity improvements played “relatively smaller roles,” the paper says.

The time frame encompassed by the study began the same year as passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, which launched EPA’s acid rain program. The period also encompassed other major regulatory initiatives, including the 1997 creation of an air quality standard for fine particulates and a dramatic tightening that same year of the threshold for ground-level ozone.

For the study, which has been accepted for publication in the American Economic Review, Shapiro and Walker tapped data from EPA’s National Emissions Inventory for sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and ozone-forming volatile organic compounds. Their research began in 2012, Shapiro said in an interview this afternoon. The study stops at 2008, he said, because data for specific manufacturing plants for later years were not available.

President Trump and congressional Republicans commonly denounce “job-killing” federal environmental regulations as a drag on economic growth. Public health and environmental advocacy groups instead point to research showing a major economic return through savings on health costs.

Late last month, acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a Trump appointee, hailed the agency’s latest report on long-term trends in air quality, which found nationwide releases of most of the same pollutants fell by almost three-quarters from 1970 through last year while the economy grew by more than 260 percent during the same time (E&E News PM, July 31).

Asked whether his study led to similar conclusions, Shapiro said the findings were “not inconsistent,” but added that the focus was on the narrower question of what led to the falloff in manufacturing-related pollution.

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, “people worried that Los Angeles, New York and other U.S. cities would have unbearable air pollution levels by the end of the 20th century,” Shapiro said in the news release.

“Instead, air pollution levels have plummeted, and the evidence shows that environmental regulations and the associated cleanup of production processes have played important roles in those steep declines,” he said.