The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Cleaner Air and the Path to Continued Progress

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted August 3, 2017

America’s air is getting cleaner and cleaner, even as the economy continues growing. So says EPA’s latest annual report on air quality, which tracks improvements since 1970. Cleaner air during economic growth, including the ongoing U.S. energy renaissance: That’s news we never get tired of hearing.

Two charts from EPA’s report capture where things stand. First, we see the combined emissions of six key air pollutants dropped 73 percent between 1970 and 2016:


These include lead (three-month average) by 99 percent, carbon monoxide (eight-hour average) by 77 percent, sulfur dioxide (one-hour) by 85 percent, nitrogen dioxide (annual) by 56 percent, ground-level ozone (eight-hour average) by 22 percent and particulate matter (PM) – coarse PM by 39 percent and fine PM by 44 percent.

This has occurred while the U.S. economy expanded significantly. Below, EPA’s chart shows the decline in aggregate emissions from the six common pollutants (light purple line), while there were increases in GDP (up 253 percent since 1970), energy consumption (up 44 percent), population (up 58 percent) and vehicle miles traveled (up 190 percent):


A good deal of this progress is the result of industry spending to improve the environmental performance of its products, facilities and operations since 1990, totaling more than $321 billion. Between 2000 and 2014, industry invested about $90 billion in new zero- or low-emissions technologies – more than twice that of the next closest industry sector and nearly as much as the federal government. Howard J. Feldman, senior director for regulatory and scientific affairs:

“National air quality is improving and the oil and natural gas industry has worked hard to be a part of the success story. Industry is committed to continuing our work with the states, Congress and EPA to continue these improvements to air quality through smart legislation and regulations and achievable timelines.”

Check out before and after shots from a time-lapse map in EPA’s report, showing improving air quality from 2005 to 2016:


This also is seen in one other EPA chart showing the decline in the number of unhealthy days (ozone and PM combined) for sensitive groups among 35 major U.S. cities:


This is significant progress that should encourage Americans everywhere. This can continue with science-based regulation and common-sense implementation time lines. Take EPA’s recent activity on ozone standards.

You can read some of the history here and here. But the short of it is that the states and our industry face implementation of dual, incompatible standards for ozone air quality – because EPA imposed new standards in 2015 before existing, 2008 standards were fully implemented across the country. The 2015 action was unnecessary, because ozone levels declined under the 2008 standards and continue to decline under them, noted in EPA’s new air quality report. The regulatory mish-mash on ozone needs to be fixed by the federal government.  Feldman:

“Evidence shows that ambient ozone levels are declining. Implementing both the 2008 and 2015 standards creates unnecessary complexity and inefficiency, in addition to needlessly burdening the states and businesses with potentially enormous costs to implement dual standards and competing timelines.”

EPA’s report indicates that America’s energy and economic interests can proceed in concert with environmental progress. We’ve seen this in U.S. carbon emissions from power generation falling to near 30-year lows, even as the economy has grown. Again, a good-news story that doesn’t get old.


Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.