By Kevin Sunday
Air quality in Pennsylvania – and the nation – has gotten significantly better in the recent years, and industry is leading the way. The billions in private capital that is being deployed to reduce emissions by business and industry is paying dividends, with Pennsylvania seeing dramatically fewer days of bad air quality.
Yet environmental activists are not celebrating this success – instead, they 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. These standards, formally called National Ambient Air Quality Standards, are established by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Federal air law requires these standards to be protective of public health and the environment plus a “sufficient margin,” meaning the standard goes beyond a baseline approach. Even with such a high bar, the region only got a failing mark one day, in one county, in all of 2020.
But don’t presume this was simply a function of emissions declining during the COVID-19 shutdown. According to DEP, across the entire state, there were 25 days where an air quality monitor across the state recorded smog levels about the NAAQS threshold. In 2019, there were 24 such days – 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).
Air quality is improving because industry continues to work hard 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 gone down by 91%. Nitrogen oxide emissions have declined 46%, and emissions of fine particulate matter went down 40%.
Even more astounding, Pennsylvania has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions more than any other state but one. This is in large part owing to a competitive electricity market, where natural gas has made considerable gains in the share of generation, with substantial new wind, solar and battery storage projects coming online in recent years as well. In fact, the private sector has on its own reduced greenhouse gas emissions much faster the Obama administration’s controversial Clean Power Plan rule would have, as President Biden’s top air official noted in an EPA memorandum earlier this year.
State and federal law are structured around continuous improvement, in essence requiring more efficient emissions control technologies to be used as they become available. When done right and in partnership with industry, the results can be remarkable and a testament to the merits of collaboration and bipartisanship: 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 has served to discourage innovate and adoption of cleaner fuels. Getting too far ahead of what is achievable in terms of emissions controls can serve to encourage offshoring of investment, or pushing operations to areas of the country with less strict environmental standards.
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. Meanwhile, the current energy crisis in Europe shows what happens when regulators push too fast on the energy transition: because of an over-reliance on intermittent resources like wind and a move away from domestic production of oil and gas, European leaders are pleading with Russia of all countries to send it more energy this winter.