The Clean Air Act's National Ambient Air Quality Standards: A Case Study of Durability and Flexibility in Program Design and Implementation

In Lessons from the Clean Air Act: Building Durability and Adaptability into U.S. Climate and Energy Policy (Carlson and Burtraw eds., Cambridge 2019)

UCLA School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 19-34

43 Pages Posted: 30 Sep 2019

Date Written: September 27, 2019

Abstract

This chapter provides a detailed case study of the Clean Air Act’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), arguably the most ambitious and successful major program in US environmental law. It is part of a larger edited collection on the lessons from the Clean Air Act regarding how we might build durability and flexibility into U.S. climate and energy policy. The chapter thus devotes particular attention to the provisions and features of the NAAQS program that contribute to its flexibility and durability. Several key lessons emerge from the case study. First, history matters. The NAAQS program was able to mature and benefit from two decades of robust functional interactions between Congress, EPA and the federal courts. Many of the key provisions of the program that contribute to its durability and flexibility were added, revised and strengthened in subsequent rounds of amendments by Congress. Without this, the program would not be nearly as effective as it is today. Second, the structure and design of the program have contributed to its overall durability in part by building in provisions for flexibility and adaptation at multiple levels – all in the context of a long-term commitment to continuous review and revision of existing standards. By design, the NAAQS program is always in motion, but the goals and overall direction of the program are clear, and there are procedural mechanisms in place that continue to push the program forward. Third, process has been fundamental in bolstering the credibility of the program and strengthening its results – from EPA’s internal NAAQS review process, to the formal and informal roles of independent scientific review, to the multiple opportunities for public participation. Taken together these process features have facilitated important signaling to regulated entities and the states. They have served to ventilate, vet and strengthen proposed revisions to the NAAQS. And they have proven to be more than sufficient to satisfy judicial review in most cases. In sum, the success of the NAAQS program has derived in large part from a combination of history, structure and process. There are important lessons for energy and climate policy here, but perhaps one of the most important lessons is that the task of building a durable, adaptive and flexible policy cannot be reduced to a set of simple design choices. Complicated programs such as the NAAQS are more than the sum of their parts. Deriving lessons from them for future policies thus requires understanding them as a whole and how they have evolved over time.

Keywords: Environmental Law, Administrative Law, Clean Air Act, Instrument Choice, Policy Design, EPA, Air Pollution, Energy, Climate Change

Suggested Citation

Boyd, William, The Clean Air Act's National Ambient Air Quality Standards: A Case Study of Durability and Flexibility in Program Design and Implementation (September 27, 2019). In Lessons from the Clean Air Act: Building Durability and Adaptability into U.S. Climate and Energy Policy (Carlson and Burtraw eds., Cambridge 2019); UCLA School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 19-34. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3460787

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