EPA Smog Rules Freakout is Ridiculous

First of all, let’s stop with the stupid sports metaphors. Really. If you need an analogy, smog regulations are a low card in a high stakes game, and Lisa Jackson is the queen of hearts when Obama needs spades. If you insist on baseball, smog reduction is a run, and Ray LaHood is Obama’s designated hitter. But really, let’s kill the sports metaphors.

One way to lower the amount of smog in American cities comes with through thick binders of all-powerful EPA regulations. Another way involves transportation spending priorities and vehicle emissions standards — policies — that also form a thick set of binders. Either way involves policy in binders. Either way reduces pollution.

Friday’s progressive freakout over nixed EPA smog rules is not really about fighting smog, but the myopia of issue focus in the blogosphere and the inflated currency of online outrage. Transportation is a wonky subject that often flies below the radar. It is not sexy or cute. Much of its advocacy is local. But federal transportation policy is also crucial in reducing smog levels as well as achieving other progressive ends.

The ingredients of smog come from tailpipes. The way to reduce the impact of modern civilization on the environment is to make those tailpipes better and cleaner. To accomplish that, the president has leveraged his opportunity to force change on the auto industry.

Big Auto has successfully fought higher mileage standards tooth-and-nail for decades. But industry lobbyists recently caved in to the administration — for the second time. Automakers must raise their fleets to a genuine average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. That is not nothing. What was that about bad negotiating and selling out?

Roland Hwang at the National Resources Defense Council calls this “the single biggest step the president can take” to lower American carbon emissions. It will also reduce the tailpipe pollutants that form smog because less fuel will be burning to keep Americans on the roads and rails and pavement we can build.

Meanwhile, the number of zero-emission electrified vehicles on American roads will go up  4,500 percent in the next six years. That’s nearly one million cars that won’t create any smog at all, thanks again to administration policy. It’s a start on the greener America we need.

To be sure, there is room for other policy changes to effect emissions reductions. The American semi truck fleet is woefully inefficient, for example, getting about six miles to the gallon. A mere ten percent increase in efficiency would save as much oil as eight Deepwater Horizon disasters — a point that brings us to another set of progressive freakouts over energy and pollution.

Obama is a transportation progressive. Why should the White House choose to fight costly battles over EPA regulations, tar sands pipelines, or offshore drilling when they can win policy battles that reduce consumption? This is not eleventy-dimensional chess. It is not apologetics. It is solid policy.

One may still save thousands of lives from smog without new EPA regulations, as transportation policy is intimately linked to public health. Less smog from tailpipes means less smog-related illness.

Nor is this a sop to conservative framing. Indeed, the White House has produced a consistently progressive and aggressive transportation reform policy, standing firm behind rule changes that encourage walkable streets and bike lanes.

The administration still wants high speed rail, which would reduce highway and airport congestion and the emissions that come from them.

The “laserlike jobs focus” of the president’s speech this week will include plenty of transportation and infrastructure spending in this line, both vital to reducing emissions. This is a major progressive priority.

It also solves many problems at once. Rather than build a bypass that produces sprawl (which in turn produces smog), repair and improvement of existing roads and bridges ease congestion and reduce emissions.

The president is not unaware of these effects; he speaks of transportation spending in exactly those terms, preferring the words “repair…maintain…jobs…emissions” repeatedly.

These priorities have the added benefit of creating more jobs than new roads. They also enjoy the impetus of current trends in American infrastructure use. Companies are disinterested in suburban locations these days. The only housing markets with any heat are closer to city centers and transit options.

Driving has already peaked in US cities, especially among younger workers. There are several reasons, including higher gas prices, impatience with long car commutes, and the overall cost of an auto-centric lifestyle. The average family can save way more money using public transit than switching to Geico.

High gas prices encourage use of mass transit, another White House priority, as well as increased bicycle ridership and record-high rail passenger numbers. With sprawl out of fashion, density and shorter drives are in. All of this accomplishes the same goals as EPA regulations: mass transit, for example, does more for the environment than green buildings.

Republicans will of course denounce all this as socialism, yet a progressive transportation policy actually meets the demands of the market. Unlike EPA regulations, bridges and rails and bike lanes are very hard for a President Rick Perry to undo.

So while none of this is as flashy or newsworthy as Lisa Jackson announcing bold new air quality standards, it is just as effective and more lasting.

The president has chosen to push for jobs — green jobs — building and maintaining roads and rails and bridges and sidewalks. All of those things enjoy enthusiastic bipartisan support among voters. They also have enormous consequences for how much fuel America burns and how much pollution we create.

Obama is leveraging the Department of Transportation for a very progressive agenda, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to progressives over the last few days. They are always in their issue-silos, unable to see a larger picture than their own narrow field of concern and quick to react with outrage.

The EPA isn’t the only cabinet agency that can effect environmental change. In many cases, it may not even be the most effective one for accomplishing progressive environmental goals. It is already a target of bipartisan opposition, and that is the simple calculus of the congress Obama has.

So stop saying he isn’t smart. Stop saying he has no strategy. Above all, stop the idiotic sports metaphors. All the calls to “go long” are like fans upset because Joe Montana has thrown ten short completions in a row instead of a bomb, and that he doesn’t play quarterback and tackle and wideout and placekick all at the same time.

About Matt Osborne

Veteran blogging the culture wars from Alabama. Video journalist, mash-up artist, aspiring novelist, and metalhead. Expect bunnies, geekery, dark humor, and snarky empirical analysis to annoy idealists of all stripes. You can follow me on Twitter, but be ready 'cause it might get loud.
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