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Clean Air and Water

It should go without saying, but clean air and water is good. Pretty much everybody agrees about that, even as we debate exactly how to translate the belief into policy. It’s a common and misleading accusation to say that people who don’t buy the party line on “climate change” hate the environment or are “anti-science.” That just isn’t true. Quite the opposite.

It is a serious, critical examination of the science that led me to doubt the so-called “consensus view” on the relationship between human CO2 emissions and changes in the climate. That same serious, critical examination of the science is what leads me to support reasonable laws and regulations relating to clean air and water. But we need to be smarter about what we regulate and how we regulate it.

Federal Authority

First, we must establish whether the federal government has a legitimate authority to regulate air and water. Under the principles of federalism, we have a system of dual sovereignty. The federal government has certain limited authorities, and the state governments have their own broader authorities.

With regard to clean air, there is a clear federal authority. Air does not respect borders. And so what happens to the air in one state will almost certainly have effects in other states and perhaps even in other nations. This means that laws and regulations relating to clean air fall under the federal government’s interstate and international relations authorities.

Clean water is a bit muddier (see what I did there?). There is a clear federal interest in the regulation of bodies of water that cross state or national lines, or that flow (directly or indirectly) into bodies of water that do. Since virtually every river eventually flows into an ocean, and the oceans are most certainly in the federal purview, they are fair game. Lakes, reservoirs, and other bodies of water that are confined to a particular state may still be subject to some degree of federal regulation, but it would be much more limited.

In all cases, the federal government may only regulate air and water to the degree that it falls under their authority…and so federal claims over, for example, small fishing holes on private property would be very tightly restricted only to whatever small impacts it may have on other bodies of water in other places. Federal authority on a lengthy river that crosses many states would be much broader.

And, of course, states can impose their own rules over things that affect air and water within their borders. Just because the federal government has almost no authority over that fishing hole doesn’t mean the state doesn’t…although it, too, must abide by the dictates of property rights.

Clean Air

All federal efforts toward clean air need to be oriented toward limiting the emission of particulates and harmful gasses. Although we should also attempt to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, these are, as explained on the climate change page, much less important than other clean air efforts.

In short, CO2 is not a pollutant. Something that every air-breathing animal exhales naturally cannot be a pollutant…even if we’re adding more of it to the atmosphere than would be there otherwise. If I fill a backyard pool with water that comes from a well, the evaporation from that pool is not a pollutant…even though that water vapor (H2O) might “naturally” still belong underground. That’s basically all we’re doing with CO2. We take the carbon up from the ground, burn it in our car engines and elsewhere, and it is released to the atmosphere.

Yeah, you can argue that a bunch of that CO2 doesn’t “belong” in the atmosphere (although it was there before…where do you think fossil fuels come from?). Fair enough. And I agree we should release a lot less of it. But if you think the CO2 is the part of the tailpipe emissions that you need to worry about, you need to go back to school…or at least do some critical thinking. Even after more than a century of increasing fossil fuel burning, CO2 still makes up only about 0.04% of the atmosphere. This small an amount of the stuff that your body literally makes and exhales every minute of every day isn’t going to kill you or anybody else. But NOX might. Particulate-induced asthma might.

Fuel economy standards (for example) are a good thing because they reduce harmful tailpipe emissions. The fact that they reduce CO2 emissions too is just a nice bonus. But every dollar we spend as a country on “reducing our carbon footprint” is a dollar we did not spend on developing better particulate filters, or reducing other harmful emissions. Sometimes those go together, so the money is not all wasted. But sometimes they don’t.

We need to change the way we write our clean air regulations — and the way we talk clean air — to focus on the things that matter.

Clean Water

When it comes to clean water, the problem with a lot of our current regulations is overreach. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has made a cottage industry for itself hassling property owners over the most minor of infractions. In one notable case, the EPA fined Andy Johnson — a Wyoming farmer — over sixteen million dollars for building a small pond on his own property. They eventually reached an amicable settlement.

Small ponds on private property are not subject to federal regulation, except in very limited cases…like if the pond is on an interstate border or has direct negative impacts on bodies of water that are subject to regulation.

As president, I will direct the EPA to immediately cease enforcement of all regulations that unduly burden property owners or that violate the principles of federalism, and then rewrite those regulations to stay within the federal purview.

While I roll back the unconstitutional regulations, I will redirect those enforcement funds toward the legitimate clean water concerns that fall under federal authority. For example, the EPA could spend all that pond enforcement money on reducing the amount of American plastics entering the ocean, or finding and stopping chemical and sewage leaks into our rivers, and so on…you know, clean water issues.