Happy Birthday Clean Air Act: Thanks for Creating Jobs and Driving Innovation While Saving Millions of Lives

The modern version of the Clean Air Act turns 21 years old this week, and we have two trillion reasons to celebrate.

The 1990 amendments to the original law were specifically designed to curb four major threats to the health of millions of Americans: acid rain, urban air pollution, toxic air emissions, and stratospheric ozone depletion. The economic benefits of these amendments will reach close to $2 trillion in 2020 while saving millions of lives from premature death over the span of the law.

Marking the occasion with a special event and press conference, U.S. Senators Tom Carper (D-DE), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Congressman John Dingel (D-MI) joined the former Director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy and former EPA Administrator Carol Browner, along with the executive director for the Institute of Clean Air Companies David Foerter, Chairman of the American Lung Association’s board of directors Dr. Albert Rizzo, and President and Founder of Hunter Panels Manufacturing Alma Garnett.

All of the participants at the event agreed on the need for more bipartisan support to continue protecting public health, while also growing the economy in a sustainable way.

“We’re going to work with Republicans and Democrats to better protect the health of this nation,” said Sen. Cardin, “we can’t do it without government regulations… our economy can’t grow unless our air is clean.”

As longest serving administrator of the EPA, Browner emphasized that the clean air standards helped grow the economy and drive innovation:

“Whenever we set new standards, American innovation and ingenuity rose to the occasion…we created American jobs. We don’t have to choose between clean air standards and jobs. We have to continue fighting for clean air in this country.”

The 1990 amendments were signed into law by President George H. W. Bush with overwhelming bipartisan support: 401 U.S. representatives and 89 senators voted yes on this historic law.


Unfortunately, today our leaders in D.C. are much less cooperative on clean air issues. Conservative members of Congress claim that protecting clean air and public health is too costly and will “kill jobs” — not just the battle cry du jour, but the continuation of arguments made for decades in favor of anti-EPA, anti-regulation measures.

Of course these views are dangerously short-sighted. Soaring public health costs, more sick days, and less productivity are far more expensive than regulation. In fact, for every $1 we spend on regulation, this country gets back $40 in economic benefit.

Still not connecting the dots? An EPA study found that in 2010 alone, the 1990 amendments have prevented more than:

  • 160,000 cases of premature mortality
  • 130,000 heart attacks
  • 13 million lost work days
  • 1.7 million asthma attacks

Beyond protecting the environment and public health, regulations have also been a driver of innovation. Every time the American people have insisted upon higher environmental performance from our industries, American business has risen to the occasion. Over and over, entrepreneurs have shown that they can find ways to build private wealth — without unduly harming public health.

To pretend otherwise is to deliberately ignore our nation’s proud history of continually improving our environmental performance. Perhaps worse, it is to confess an appalling lack of confidence in the creative power of American ingenuity.


The Clean Air Act stands as one of the most important public health measures in our nation’s history, and we need it to last for another 21 years and beyond.

— Jorge Madrid is a research associate with the energy policy team at the Center for American Progress. Matt Kasper is an intern with the energy team at CAP.