2021 Federal Action Plan: Healthy Air Priorities

Here are key actions the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Congress and other federal leaders must take to protect public health from air pollution and climate change:

Strengthen the Foundations of Clean Air Protections

Everyone deserves to breathe clean air, yet nearly half of Americans still live in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution, with people of color bearing a disproportionate burden. The Administration must fully implement and enforce the Clean Air Act’s fundamental, science-based protections to ensure cleanup of harmful pollution in every community, particularly those near polluting sources, transportation centers or corridors that have too long suffered disproportionately.

Strengthen the National Ambient Air Quality Standards
  • Decades of studies link air pollutants to health harms and premature death, particularly for at-risk populations, like people with asthma, COPD, or other lung disease; people with cardiovascular disease; children; the elderly; and people of color. The National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) are foundational to guarding the public against dangerous health complications from air pollution. Strong NAAQS set a floor that helps drive all other progress reducing emissions from polluting sources.
  • Particle pollution and ozone are two of the most widespread and dangerous air pollutants. The Clean Air Act requires that the Environmental Protection Agency set the NAAQS solely based on what the science shows is necessary to protect human health with an adequate margin of safety. The 2020 reviews of the ozone and particle pollution NAAQS were inadequate, cutting out scientific input and important analysis as well as failing to tighten the current, outdated standards. 
  • EPA must immediately initiate new, robust NAAQS reviews for both particle pollution and ozone and set the strongest standards supported by the science to fully protect health. 
  • EPA must rescind its 2019 revised policy on exclusions from “ambient air,” which undermined the NAAQS by exempting areas near polluting sources from having to comply.
Reaffirm the Role of Sound Science
  • Including scientific and health experts in the regulatory decision-making process is a responsibility that the Administration must take seriously. EPA must restore advisory panels to their full capacity and rescind measures that keep qualified scientists off advisory panels.
  • EPA has long relied on transparent science in its policymaking, including peer-reviewed health studies that rely on confidential patient information. The agency must both inform its policies with these sound studies and protect patient privacy. EPA must immediately withdraw the Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science proposed rule.
Fully Account for Health Benefits and Costs in Rulemaking
  • If efforts to reduce emissions of one pollutant end up reducing the levels of other dangerous pollutants concurrently, those additional benefits should be considered in the cost-benefit analysis of a particular regulation. Further, because the costs of many health impacts of air pollution cannot be fully quantified – such as developmental delays from mercury – these analyses frequently already undercount the health benefits of air pollution regulationsEPA must withdraw the Increasing Consistency in Considering Benefits and Costs in the Clean Air Act Rulemaking Process proposed rule.
  • The overwhelming scientific consensus is that agencies must fully account for the costs of climate change and integrate climate change planning across the agency’s work. A social cost of carbon (and of other greenhouse gases) that accounts for the many health impacts of climate change will better inform sound federal climate policy. All federal agencies must use an updated, more accurate social cost of carbon to inform policies that would have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

Reduce Mobile Source Emissions

The transportation sector is one of the largest contributors to air pollution in the United States. A nationwide transition to electric vehicles would yield $72 billion in health benefits in the year 2050 alone, preventing 6,300 premature deaths, 93,000 asthma attacks and 416,000 missed days of work. 

Transition to Cleaner Cars, SUVs and Light Trucks
  • An American Lung Association poll showed that nearly seven in 10 voters supported the Obama-era fuel efficiency standards over Trump Administration efforts to weaken them. EPA conducted a substantial review and public comment period in 2016 and found that these 2022-2025 vehicle emissions requirements were appropriate and that auto manufacturers can meet them. EPA should set strong greenhouse gas standards that significantly reduce emissions and support the transition to zero-emission vehicles.
  • California’s Clean Air Act authority to set stronger emissions standards than the federal government, and other states’ ability to opt into California’s standards, have driven decades of progress in reducing emissions from motor vehicles. EPA must restore California’s waiver to operate its vehicle emissions programs and grant the state future waivers for more protective standards.
Transition to Cleaner Heavy-Duty Vehicles
  • Glider trucks are vehicles that combine a new truck cab and chassis with an outdated, super-polluting engine. Gliders can emit as much as 450 times the pollution of a certified new truck. EPA must withdraw the Proposed Repeal of Emission Requirements for Glider Vehicles, Glider Engines, and Glider Kits.
  • EPA must move forward with the Cleaner Trucks Initiative by proposing and finalizing a new NOx standard that achieves a 90% reduction over the current standards and repeals the glider truck loophole. EPA should continue to partner with the California Air Resources Board to harmonize a national standard for NOx emission standards for trucks.
  • Bringing zero-emissions technologies to the trucking sector as rapidly as possible is a critical component of achieving clean air and public health goals. Congress should  increase funding for the bipartisan Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) to reduce diesel emissions. Any standard that EPA promulgates to regulate emissions from trucks must also extend durability requirements, so emissions controls work throughout the lifetime of the vehicle and consumers are protected with extended warranty periods. 
  • As part of its efforts to clean up emissions from heavy-duty vehicles, EPA programs should support the widespread transition to zero emission vehicles.
Strengthen Off-Road Equipment Controls
  • EPA should develop and implement stronger standards for off-road mobile sources of pollution, including locomotives, aviation, marine and construction equipment.  

Reduce Stationary and Area Source Emissions

The nation can simultaneously address the climate crisis and decades of disproportionate air pollution burdens by cleaning up fossil fuel emissions from all sources. Action to reduce emissions from local sources can also provide immediate benefits to health.

Transition to Clean, Non-Combustion Renewable Energy
Equitably Reduce or Eliminate Emissions from Power Plants
  • Under the Clean Air Act, EPA is required to limit greenhouse gases from power plants to protect public health. EPA should repeal the inadequate Affordable Clean Energy Rule and replace it with a rule that dramatically reduces greenhouse gases from power plants.
  • Coal- and oil-fired power plants emit a host of harmful pollutants including carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and particle pollution. Historically marginalized communities are forced to breathe dirty air simply because they live close to a major polluting source. Any efforts to reduce emissions released from power plants must ensure benefits to the communities most affected by them and ensure that no polluting plant uses offsets or emissions trading to avoid cleanup. Policies to reduce carbon emissions from power plants should maximize reductions in other air pollutants at the same time.
  • Continuing to enforce the widely supported, fully implemented Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will maintain critical reductions in mercury and prevent its devastating health impacts, including permanent developmental challenges. EPA must restore the appropriate and necessary finding for MATS.
  • For over two decades, EPA has required sources to take steps to limit emissions of toxic air pollutants, called Hazardous Air Pollutants, like benzene, formaldehyde, hydrochloric acid, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). From 1990 to 2012, these requirements for pollution reduction cut an estimated 1.5 million tons of HAPs per year. Due to EPA’s decision to weaken these requirements by repealing the so-called Once-In, Always In policy, millions of Americans could be at risk of breathing dangerous pollutants, including carcinogens. EPA needs to repeal the Reclassification of Major Sources as Area Sources Under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act Rule. 
  • The Clean Air Act’s New Source Review process ensures that new or expanded polluting facilities do not add to the burden of unhealthy air in communities. As part of its proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, EPA proposed gutting New Source Review requirements by allowing emissions to be calculated at an hourly rate as opposed to an annual one. The result would be that emissions could increase dramatically, but facilities would not have to install and operate modern pollution controls as long as their hourly rate of emissions did not increase. EPA must withdraw and abandon any proposal to weaken the New Source Review process.
Issue Strong Limits on Methane from the Oil and Gas Industry
  • The oil and gas sector is the largest contributor to methane pollution in the United States. Methane is an extremely potent climate pollutant and is a precursor to ozone pollution. Volatile organic compounds, which are emitted alongside methane from oil and gas sources, leads to ozone formation and can lead to cancers, irritation of the lungs, and developmental disorders.
  • To ensure that communities are protected from leaks of dangerous air pollutants and climate-warming methane, EPA must repeal the Final Policy and Technical Amendments to the New Source Performance Standards for the Oil and Natural Gas Industry.
  • EPA must then promulgate limits on methane pollution from existing sources in the oil and gas industry.
Fully implement and enforce stronger pollution standards for wood heaters
  • Wood-burning stoves are local sources of harmful particle pollution. EPA must fully implement and enforce the current new source performance standards requiring new wood heaters to be less polluting, and withdraw the proposed amendments to these standards that would delay their implementation.

Equip States for Preparedness and Mitigation

State, local, and tribal health agencies across the country are already dealing with the health impacts of climate change and need support.

Invest in Public Health Infrastructure, Including from a Climate Perspective
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that we cannot ignore our country’s public health infrastructure. State, local, and tribal health agencies need the financial support and resources to prepare for the climate events that are already here – flooding, high heat days, wildfires, vector-borne diseases, and more. Congress must pass the Climate Change Health Protection and Promotion Act (H.R. 1243/ S. 523) to help guide states as they deal with the impacts of climate change.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Climate and Health Program is an existing mechanism that provides funding for states to conduct research and act on climate mitigation and preparedness, but its capacity to rise to its full potential has been limited by funding. The President’s Budget should request, and Congress should appropriate, increased investments in this program with the ultimate goal of fully funding it at $50 million. 
  • Congress must prioritize supporting the public health workforce as they prepare for the response and mitigation of climate change. 

Elevate Climate & Health in Congress

Congress has a large role to play in addressing the climate crisis. Any efforts to reduce emissions and protect the environment must prioritize health benefits, particularly those who bear a disproportionate burden of the country’s air pollution.

Preserve the Clean Air Act
  • For 50 years, the Clean Air Act has driven dramatic improvements in air quality across the country. The law requires the federal government to place limits on harmful air pollution, including the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. The Clean Air Act remains the best tool we have to ensure healthy for all. Congress must commit to leaving the Clean Air Act fully in place, including the authority granted to the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases.
Prioritize Addressing Health Impacts of Climate Change
  • Climate change does more than wreak havoc on the environment, food systems, and infrastructure. A warming climate leads to increased pollutants in the air we breathe. Natural disasters fueled by climate change leave homes and medical clinics without power or demolished, and evacuees separated from their providers, leaving Americans needing medical care in a volatile position. As Congress continues to tackle climate change and the ways to mitigate its long-term effects, they must prioritize public health and ensure equity in their response.
Invest in Healthier Infrastructure and Solutions
  • As a part of a healthy recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, investments should include continued support for electric vehicle incentive programs, diesel emission reduction programs and grants, more robust electric vehicle infrastructure, and continued incentives for non-combustion, renewable power sources.

Page last updated: November 6, 2020

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