The Risks of Deregulation - a Short History of Urban Smog

by Sean Vandehey

Our story begins, as befits our era, with a Trump Tweet.  On 14 December President Trump proudly tweeted that he was beginning the process of cutting down the Code of Federal Regulations from it’s current size of 180k pages back towards it’s 1960 size of just 20k.  To quote the President, “Today, we CUT THE RED TAPE! It is time to SET FREE OUR DREAMS and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

The problem, of course, is that every single line in the official Code of Federal Regulations was put there on purpose - every line represents someone, somewhere, who cut corners on safety rules, and someone else who paid the price.  As Joy Reid put it in her response to the President’s tweet, “Every one of those pages protects your food from being filled with rat droppings, [...] & corporations from polluting the air you breathe...”.  

Case in point - this was the view of NYC from the World Trade Center as recently as 1988.

(photo by  Dr. Edwin P. Ewing, Jr)
In fact, Los Angeles, once infamous for it’s midday smog, despite steady progress over the years has recently seen a spike in daytime ozone readings from a 2015 low.  The last two years have been such a significant increase, in fact - 145 days above federal limits in 2017, up from 132 in 2016, and 113 in 2015, with 2004 being the last year with more than 140 days above the limit - that environmentalists are wary to directly attribute the rise to weather patterns or climate change caused by global warming.  In fact, they’re specifically citing weak regulations as the root cause, suggesting that while officially LA has half as much smog-forming pollution coming out of cars and factories, city officials may well be underestimating emissions from economically important polluters like oil refineries and the ports. 
And Californian officials share their concerns - they have been actively resisting EPA director Scott Pruitt’s recent decision to delay the introduction of an Obama administration rule tightening air quality standards to below current limits.  "California is forging ahead with aggressive actions to reduce ozone levels, irrespective of EPA's delay," said California Air Resources Board spokesman Stanley Young last June, citing the longstanding problem with air pollution in the state, and existing plans to achieve a 70ppm goal regardless of the federal standard.  
Whose dreams exactly President Trump seeks to set free are unclear, but the old photos of NYC or LA from the 70s and 80s, with fuzzy buildings and invisible horizons, might suggest a counterargument to his fears of “burdensome” red tape.  
Think about the level of smog and pollution in your own community, and imagine how much worse it could get if we're not careful about which regulations are onerous and which are for the public good.  You can contact Scott Pruitt yourself here, and tell him we need more robust air quality regulations nationwide.  (President Trump can always be reached on Twitter.)