The Corner

Energy & Environment

California’s Skies and the Limits of Regulation

Century City and downtown Los Angeles, Calif. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The American Lung Association’s annual State of the Airreport offers a valuable lesson about the limits of regulation to solve problems.

California has the toughest air-quality regulations of any state in the country. In 1967, the state passed sweeping new regulations in response to Los Angeles’ smog, and under the Clean Air Act, the state was allowed to keep it stricter standards. All of its recent governors considered themselves environmentalists, and no doubt the state’s legislators consider themselves to be defenders of clean air. California New Car Dealers Association says 4.7 percent of the cars sold in the state in the past year are now all-electric and plug-in hybrids are another 3.1 percent.

Yet the State of the Air report finds that by every measure — ozone, year-round particle pollution, and short-term particle pollution — California cities are at the top of the list and often dominate the top ten. Los Angeles, Visalia, Bakersfield, Fresno, Sacramento, and San Diego are the top six for worst in ozone; Fresno and Bakersfield rank one and two for worst in year-round particle pollution and three California cities in the top six; and the same two are the two worst in short-term particle pollution, with four California cities in the top seven.

This is not some sort of Trump administration-driven change; the report covers air quality from 2015 to 2017.

If California has such strict regulation, why is the air quality so bad? Blame it on geography and population density — two factors that are exceptionally difficult to change. The American Lung Association has done 20 State of the Air reports and Los Angeles ranked as the worst in 19 of those years. California’s cities have a lot of people, a lot of cars and traffic, and a lot of sunny days. When you live in a valley surrounded by high mountains, the smog doesn’t disperse easily. And there are other factors that are not easily mitigated through regulations: “Twenty of the 26 most polluted cities had more days on average in the 2019 report. Many of these are due to wildfires.”

(Another interesting observation from the report: Pittsburgh is the only city in the 25 most polluted that is east of the Mississippi River.)

The American Lung Association opposes the Trump administration’s effort to repeal the Clean Power Plan, removing limits on methane emissions, efforts to loosen the fuel efficiency standards on cars, and the Trump administration’s stances on the environment in general. But California is a glaring evidence that you can only regulate away air pollution so much; it is a near-inevitable side effect of human activity, particularly driving — even in places where residents are more likely to be able to afford and be interested in buying electric and hybrid cars. If the toughest air-quality regulations in the country are having such a limited effect on what Californians breathe, proponents of tougher air-quality regulations elsewhere should be modest in their promises.


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