Air quality in Pennsylvania – and the nation – has gotten significantly better in recent years and industry is leading the way, deploying billions in private capital to reduce emissions and increase sustainability. As a result, Pennsylvania is seeing dramatically fewer days of poor air quality. Yet, instead of celebrating this, environmental activists are misleading the public with reports such as PennEnvironment’s Trouble in the Air.
The report claims residents in the Harrisburg region suffered under months of unhealthy air in 2020. In actuality, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the region saw just one day – in early June 2020 in Lancaster – where an air quality monitor recorded smog levels above the most stringent federal standard.
Air quality is improving statewide as well. DEP data show 25 days in 2020 where an air quality monitor somewhere in the stated smog levels about the strictest federal ozone standard – a massive decline compared to 108 such days in 2018 and 169 such days in 2016. EPA data shows York, Lancaster and the Harrisburg regions are all meeting the most stringent smog standards year-round, as is the rest of the state (with the exception of Philadelphia, which has to deal with emissions from the I-95 corridor).
PennEnvironment’s report also neglects to note that, per their methodology, the number of Americans who breathed 100 or more days of “degraded” air quality – 58 million in the 2020 Trouble in the Air report – is down by almost half, compared to 108 millionin 2018? Given what the public health literature notes about the impacts of poor air quality to the health and development of vulnerable populations, an increase in clean air of this magnitude in so short a time period (and under the Trump administration, no less) would stand as one of the most incredible public health achievements in our nation’s history.
Air quality is improving because industry continues to deploy the most efficient control technologies and reduce emissions. According to EPA emissions data, since 2008, industrial emissions of the compounds that contribute most to poor air quality have declined immensely: Sulfur dioxide emissions have declined 91%, nitrogen oxide by 46%, and fine particulate matter by 40%.
Even more astounding, Pennsylvania has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions more than any other state but one. In a highly competitive power generation market, private companies are investing billions in new natural gas, battery, solar and wind projects – so much so that the private sector has reduced greenhouse gas emissions much faster than the Obama administration’s controversial Clean Power Plan rule would have, as an EPA memorandum noted earlier this year.
When regulation is done right by affording flexibility to industry, the results can be quite remarkable: One air quality rule that was developed under Republican Gov. Corbett and finalized under Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf yielded a massive 60% reduction in coal-fired power plant emissions in just one year.
Yes, the regulatory and permitting regimes are not without their faults, at times placing our state at a disadvantage. We have argued that regulators have, at times, implemented air laws in a way that discourages innovation and adoption of cleaner fuels. Getting too far ahead of what is achievable in terms of emissions controls can serve to encourage offshoring of manufacturing.
Yet it remains the case that by embracing innovation, policymakers and industry leaders have positioned Pennsylvania to be an energy powerhouse and a leader in sustainability. Because of Pennsylvania’s tremendous assets, the United States has led the world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions while keeping energy costs among the lowest of all developed nations.
Each year, an increasing number of Americans think the environment is getting worse, thanks to reports like PennEnvironment’s. But the truth is, Pennsylvania has a tremendous story to tell when it comes to improving energy affordability and air quality because of our business community’s commitment to competition and sustainability. That’s an approach that should continue to be embraced by regulators and applauded by environmental groups.
Kevin Sunday is director of government affairs and manages energy, environmental and infrastructure policy for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, the largest, broad-based business advocacy organization in the commonwealth. Sunday lives in Mechanicsburg with his wife and children.