November 7, 2012

Question: How much has the conquest of smog cost?

I'm mulling over a major article about the differences between liberalism and conservatism, and I'd like to use an example that I've never seen anybody fully work out.

There is vastly less smog in Los Angeles today than when I was a kid. It's a real triumph of environmental regulation. 

On the other hand, it's not exactly a cost-free triumph. For example, do you remember decades ago when you went to the car dealership and the EPA gas mileage sticker offered two different estimates: the national miles per gallon number and the California number, which was about 10% worse? 

As I seem to recall, people would go to Las Vegas or Phoenix to buy a car without California pollution controls on it because they would save maybe 10% of the cost of gasoline for a year, which is not a small number in aggregate.

After awhile, though, there stopped being two numbers because the feds applied many of the California emission control standards on cars to the entire country to keep more polluting non-California cars from slipping into California. (Thank you, non-Californians, for helping us, and the limited number of Denverites, Albuquerqueans and others who live in mountain-ringed cities, out with our smog problems.)

Has anybody ever seen a study adding up all the costs of the Defeat of Smog?


gwern said...

Just a general comment: one death from heart attack or lung cancer pays for an awful lot of gasoline, especially back then.

Kaz said...

Yeah as much as I think we overblow the whole global warming thing, air quality is a real issue that we should not just overlook.

Mike said...

Following up on gwern's comment, and ignoring the cost side of the equation, exposure to smog and lower IQ are apparently linked, with economic implications. Not sure how well they've sorted correlation vs causation though.

wren said...

Not just this, but so many little costs, compounded over the years, really add up.

Luke Lea said...

Something similar was done to retore the blue skies of Tennessee. Before scrubbers, the tall chimneys from coal burning power plants in the MidWest use to emit smoke which led to a semi-transparent omnipresent white haze high up in the summer sky. These last few years however the skies have been restored to a pristine state of blue. Like you see in Pasadena. I call them California blue and consider them a great luxury.

rightsaidfred said...

Grrr. Regarding new vehicles, we've made the easy gains in smog control. The new regs are mainly gratuitous bureaucratic flogging.

The new diesel regs are quite onerous, have questionable robustness, and are terribly expensive, adding something like $7000 plus to each engine.

Caterpillar quit making over-the-road truck engines, a move I found astounding: a mainline, unionized, American manufacturing stalwart chased out of the market. But there wasn't much press about it.

Anonymous said...

Clean air to breathe is priceless!

So is clean water to drink. And clean, healthy food to eat.

Whatever it cost to get rid of the smog was worth it.

Anonymous said...

You have to burn 18% more gasoline to have a cat converter, the pressure drop on the flow and the added weight being carried around further contribute to the reduction in efficiency.
I would love to find a study of the actual benefits of this monstrosity.

rightsaidfred said...

Clean air to breathe is priceless!

That's why I advocate the paleolithic lifestyle for everyone but me. Well worth it.

While we're doing a cost/benefit analysis, let's add in the cost of ramping up the lifestyle of our favorite immigrants, and the added pollution load from that.

Difference Maker said...

Health is greater than wealth

beowulf said...

You know Steve, we aren't governed by complete idiots. The costs to polluters were far outweighed by the benefits to the public at large (pollution is, after all, a public nuisance). the President's budget director runs cost benefit analysis on all proposed federal regulations (so the call isn't left to the self-interested agencies like the EPA), if the regs don't show a positive benefit to cost ratio, its back to the drawing board. To cite a retrospective study from the liberal White House of that hippie President, George W. Bush (of course real liberals and hippies thought W. was the Antichrist):

"The report... concludes that the health and social benefits of enforcing tough new clean-air regulations during the past decade were five to seven times greater in economic terms than were the costs of complying with the rules. The value of reductions in hospitalization and emergency room visits, premature deaths and lost workdays resulting from improved air quality were estimated between $120 billion and $193 billion from October 1992 to September 2002.
By comparison, industry, states and municipalities spent an estimated $23 billion to $26 billion to retrofit plants and facilities and make other changes to comply with new clean-air standards..."

As for California's regs, Uncle Sam recently adopted California emission standards as the national standard and came up with a positive benefit cost ratio for those too (note its only 5 years, if, like the Bush study, the front-loaded costs were weighed against the benefits over 10 years, the economic benefits would be even greater).

"The rule estimates the cost of compliance for the industry at $52 billion over the five years of the program and calculates benefits at $240 billion. Those benefits include fuel savings, pollution
reduction and reduced oil imports."

wren said...

While we're doing a cost/benefit analysis, let's add in the cost of ramping up the lifestyle of our favorite immigrants, and the added pollution load from that.

Yes, these little costs, compounded over the years, really add up.

For some reason, I keep hearing about the Hispanic portion of the electorate these days.

I've been wondering what portion of this Hispanic electorate is here due to ancestors who came in illegally.

Does anyone know?

Auntie Analogue said...

Yes, it's indeed peachy keen that we got rid of smog.

Yet it's anything but pleasant to have the full array of the Nanny State's onerous probes up our various exhaust pipes every which way from here to hell and high water.

Anonymous said...

I thought Godzilla beat the smog monster.

Steve Sailer said...

"Those benefits include fuel savings"

Okay, but this 2010 article isn't about smog, but about greenhouse gas emission regulations.

My presumption from reading old EPA gas mileage stickers at auto dealerships is that the war on smog worsened gas mileage.

I'm grateful for this big reduction in smog in my city, I just want to know how much it costs.

wren said...

I propose that in order to continue winning the war on smog, California frack for natural gas, and then run vehicles on that.

Localvore vehicles. ;-)

Very clean!

Of course, I know that the Center for Biological Diversity will be upset about the environmental disruption in the blunt-nosed leopard lizard habitat.

And, who knows, maybe they have more right to a clean environment than humans do.

Anonymous said...

I worked in engine development up until 2 years ago.

Emissions regulation in cars has been pushed to a massively wasteful excess during the last 10 years. In a city environment the exhaust coming out of a car is actually 'cleaner' than the air entering it. At the testing facility I worked at we couldn't do some tests on certain days because the wind would blow the boiler exhaust gases from a shopping mall a mile away in our direction and that tiny amount of imperfectly combusted gas in the air would make it impossible for us to meet the emissions limits required.

Car emission regulations are being continuously tightened with no added health benefits, but with rapidly escalating costs. All the tricks that must be employed to meet these regs (like deliberately inefficient tuning during startup to heat the catalysts faster, never running in more efficient lean combustion mode, and efficiency sapping restrictive exhausts) lead to much greater fuel consumption, and a lot more precious metal consumption for the catalysts.

Car manufacturers enjoy some benefits from this as it serves as an entry barrier for smaller competitors, and also increases the cost of the car (and their net margins) as well as being a small earner from ongoing maintenance requirements. But mostly it is a sop for the green vote with no measurable health or environmental benefits being added in last decade. With the notable exception of diesel particulate reductions.

Cost is pretty major - about $3k added to a diesel car, and about $1.5-2k to a Gasoline car.

Bringing it back to more sensible levels would save the US perhaps $20 billion per year in vehicle costs and probably another $10-20 billion in fuel, so around $100 per person.

e-Mendation said...

The air quality in the Valley was noticeably bad after wintertime until Thanksgiving in the 80s. I grew up near Pasadena (mentioned above) which is in a different valley. But it too had seen improvement by the early 90s, maybe not to this level of "dreamy blue" (mentioned above) since I do recall late-spring AYSO soccer practices becoming pretty gross certain days and occasionally a hundred or so kids heading home early to catch the remaining cartoons before the networks switched to college football. Also there were regulations that followed the cat converter & emissions stuff in the 70s, involving gasoline blends and (of dubious efficacy) carpooling. The part Sailer may address in his article but doesn't here is the external pressure not factored into this set of conditions, a casualty of presenting the war on smog only ever going in one direction. Heading into Inland Empire remains fairly disgusting today because of metastasizing traffic jams of less-than-perfectly-maintained vehicles snarled out there. According to such a presentation in Mexico City or Tehran the smog would seem to be winning recently...

home of the oldies said...

Localvore vehicle!. ;-)

Here's a rerun from the last time we were all mocking Williamsburg artisan cheese makers (I think that was almost a few months ago)

Anonymous said...

The crazy GOP environmental people are out in force here! I like the part where car exhaust is cleaner than city air. That's why my favorite place to relax and exercise is in busy poorly ventilated parking garages and in parks alongside busy roadways.

I am all in favor of strict air pollution laws as I can easily afford them and enjoy fresh air. Republicans who don't like that can go live in China, there is plenty of smog and cheap cars there.

Lugash said...

The new diesel regs are quite onerous, have questionable robustness, and are terribly expensive, adding something like $7000 plus to each engine.

Yep. They also cut efficiency, which was the reason for going diesel in the first place. Light truck fleet operators are switching back to gas on new trucks.

On the gasoline side, I don't think much more improvement is available. Fuel injection and better sealing gas tanks(which prevent evaporative emissions) are on 99% of the cars on the road anymore. Ditto on catalytic converters.

mr tall said...

This would be a fascinating study to do here in Hong Kong, where the air quality is rotten for much of the fall and winter. The efforts taken here to clean up vehicle emissions are extensive, including requiring buses and taxis to run on liquid propane.

The irony is that most of the pollution here gets blown down over the border from mainland China, and there's not a thing we can do about it.

Whoa Nelly said...

"Has anybody ever seen a study adding up all the costs of the Defeat of Smog?"

It was a costly defeat, the town of Dale burned badly, and there were arguments to be had, but on the other hand, it freed up his pile of gold and other treasures which he had accumulated.

Dahinda said...

Maybe people should just drive less. You rarely hear that discussed. Live closer to work and shopping and make less trips. This would solve a lot of problems with the the smog and cost of gas etc..

Seneca said...

"Emissions regulation in cars has been pushed to a massively wasteful excess during the last 10 years. In a city environment the exhaust coming out of a car is actually 'cleaner' than the air entering it. At the testing facility I worked at we couldn't do some tests on certain days because the wind would blow the boiler exhaust gases from a shopping mall a mile away in our direction and that tiny amount of imperfectly combusted gas in the air would make it impossible for us to meet the emissions limits required."

Good post about the law of diminishing returns.

About five years ago I was involved in an air pollution case involving a small manufacturer and the EPA and a bunch of scientists who served as expert witnesses from places like M.I.T. , Cal-Tech, etc ( and made a tidy sum debating how much or if any the manufacturer was violating the law).

The EPA wanted a draconian penalty that would have put the company out of business.

On their web site the EPA and Justice Department tout settlements they have entered into including the amounts.

One aspect of the case I worked on was determining what a fair penalty would be.

When reviewing the history of violators and settlments my impression was that most of the big awards and settlements were in the 1970s and 1980s and that the EPA is icreasingly forced to go after more marginal pollutors or violators to keep busy because all the big offenders have either complied or moved their facilities to Mexico or China.

The low hanging fruit is gone ... there are no big polluters in the U.S. anymore I would guess.

This puts pressure on the EPA and the government to jack up settlement demands on marginal polluters (gotta keep the revenue flowing).

Cheaper labor was only one of the reasons companies moved to China and Mexico ... regulatory burdens and possible penalties were another.

I like clean air too ... but there were definitely some costs to achieving it.

Pat Boyle said...

This is another example of what is called the banana problem. What is the algorithm for writing the word "banana"?

Given "b" then "a". Given "a" then "n". Given "n" then "a". But this doesn't get you "banana", it gets you "banananananana...".

There is no mechanism for stopping. So it is with the environment. The air pollution problem was a real problem here in the SF Bay Area. The term "smog" was coined here by Herb Caen a columnist for the SF Chronicle. But that battle was joined and won thirty years ago. I used to be an environmentalist - back in the days when there really were such problems. But the skies are clear. Tom Lehrer had a funny song about water pollution too. But that's also a solved problem.

One day a couple years ago thinking of Lehrer's song I looked up on-line the status of Oakland's water. To my delight I discovered that there is an elaborate public water quality monitoring system and that Oakland has essentially perfect water. Every measure of water quality that anyone can think of is routinely measured and Oakland passes all tests.

And so does every other municipality in Northern California.

How do we stop? The public water supply is now a solved problem. Maybe we need a new song?

A couple years ago there was a Val Kilmer movie about going to Mars. Val and the crew were looking for a solution for the poisoned Earth. Last year there was a major new TV series based on the plot premise that by 2050 the planet was so polluted that we had had to open up a time travel escape to the Mesozoic. This premise allowed for a lot of plots with dinosaurs to be shot. But most of the tension was not the big hungry creatures but the prospect of the evil polluters from the doomed future coming back to destroy the past.

I know this is just silly mass market Sci-Fi nonsense but it does effect the electorate. Based on current evidence the environment now is great and it will continue to stay great indefinitely. But a rosy future seems to make for a dull Sci-Fi plot.

I know that this is the case because earnest young people knock on my door trying to arouse in me some alarm about air and/or water pollution (or the whales or global warming). As things gets better - the kids become ever more panicked.

I'm tempted to posit some adaptation that makes us worry about problems that has come off the rails because we have eliminated so many problems. Maybe we are not constituted to deal with a world filled with solved problems?

You can see much of this sort of thing in the recent political campaign. I frankly couldn't believe the rhetoric about soaking the rich. It sounded like something you might have heard in Paris or Berlin in the mid nineteenth century. Then there was the rhetoric about restrictions on birth control. Again this was something that might have made some sense in a Catholic state in the sixties - but not today.

Modern progressives are increasingly concerned with problems and controversies long since solved. I didn't see this social change coming. I naively thought that when a problem was solved we would all move on to the next problem. But that's not how it is. There is no more air pollution but we have even more environmentalist hysteria than before. Black people have been given every advantage but we have elected Barrack Obama to fix - what?


Pat Boyle said...

Let me be more responsive to the question you posed.

Suppose that through some detailed analysis you determined that reducing air pollution by 90% would yield one trillion dollars in benefits. So you then instituted a program that cost $800 billion to solve that problem.

You might think that that program was then cost justified. But not in a political climate of perpetual hysteria. We then spend another $800 to drive the pollution levels down some more. And another $800 billion every year thereafter. Obviously no program can be cost effective if you don't stop at some time.

There is a huge problem confronting America but no one wants to even talk about it much less actually do anything. We prefer to continue to spend money on solvable problems. We know that they are solvable because they have already been solved. Air pollution is an excellent example of this. It's no longer a problem so it's safe to think about it.

The big problem America faces is simply - what to do with black people? Unlike air pollution where every remedy has been met with success, solutions to the black population problem have all failed.

No one has any proposals that have any chance of success. Education is often invoked but it has failed. School integration was supposed to make everyone equal but instead it just degraded the academic performance of the non-blacks. Jobs programs haven't worked either, at least partly because jobs programs are really education programs. Affirmative action quotas and make work programs help in the short run - at least some blacks for some time are employed. But unlike air pollution which keeps getting better, building better black behavior has failed and there is no prospect of it getting better.

When Sci-Fi writers portray the future it is often dystopian. The post apocalyptic scenario used to be based on nuclear war. More recently it's been environmental. But no one dares to to portray the really scary future that seems to be barrelling down on us - some kind of restriction of the black population.

Awhile back we had "Escape from New York" when we thought crime was out of control. The solution was to put a fence around New York City. Today we might expect similar visions of the future where we put a fence around Detroit. But no one dares to think that - yet. Just as no one is willing to ask the question - Why was Trayvon Martin allowed outside? He had dropped out or flunked out or had been kicked out of school. In the normal course of events he was headed to prison. If society has no use for such young men, why not just lock them up as a preventative measure?

This idea is too radical for readers who value you constitutional rights and fair play. But just wait. No one is quite ready for preventative detention of black kids - yet. For now we can continue to obsess on problem like air pollution that aren't problems at all.

Currently we have "Three Strikes" rules. Since the police only catch a proportion of the criminals that means that a young criminal commits maybe a dozen crimes before they are permanently removed from society. Obviously a "One Strike" rule makes more sense if you are principally interested in crime suppression. If a black teen age male commits a single violent crime it makes a lot of sense to lock him up forever. Right now we know what the profile for violent street offender is - black, young male. We don't act on that knowledge - yet. But I think we will see "One Strike" rules in some jurisdictions in the next few years. I'm suggesting that that the real issue is the "Zero Strikes" rules that will follow.

Get the roaming black criminals off the streets by just profiling the boys in high school. Someone like Trayvon Martin is just to risky to allow out.

I don't much care for such a future. I'd prefer American values and institutions but those are being eroded by the reality of black behavior. Americans seem to prefer simple safe problems like air pollution to worry about.


Anonymous said...

A blog post at

talks about the 2011 EPA study of costs and benefits. On the benefits side, that study sounds worthless (for example, it expanded the benefits by about 1000% compared to the Clinton administration study). That's where most of the discussion has been. You're right to focus on the cost side. The EPA claims, it seems from that webpage, about $65 billion per year, but that's the EPA claim, which is no doubt self serving.
Three other things to keep in mind are:
1. Pollution was declining even before the EPA. We are moving to a service economy.
2. The choice is not zero regulation vs. current regulation. Optimal regulation might well be in between-- at the level before the 1990 amendments, for example, because of diminishing returns.
3. As you note, most of the US never had a pollution problem, and gets zero benefit. Those that did, such as LA, would not have such high populations now if there were no pollution controls, because people wouldn't like to live there. One form of reducing the cost to asthmatics is to move them out of LA, rather than changing LA so they can move to LA.

David said...

It may be a problematic example to use in a general article about liberal v. conservative because civilization and pollution are coextensive. You can push pollution (or manufacturing) out of an area, but it just increases in another area. The only question is who gets dirtied: who-whom again.

How much it costs to poison China, Mexico, et al. to our (environmental) advantage is an unrewarding subject, but more to the point, neither mainstream liberalism nor conservatism promotes cutting back on industrial activity: the various "third ways" (such as carbon credits or "green" energy) are merely methods of obscuring the hard reality of externalities transfers. The problem is only cosmetically solvable under the head of liberal v. conservative.

So you'll be discussing a problem that has no solutions except cosmetic ones with undesirable implications, unless, that is, you can show that either government (liberal) or truly laissez-faire private markets (conservative) could: A. get rid of or significantly reduce world pollution by R&D'ing Galt's motor or the equivalent, or B. more than decimate industrial production.

The problems with this are 1. there is no such thing as truly laissez-faire private markets. Every advanced economy is a symbiosis of much government intervention and private initiative. The distinction is too blurry. (Which partly explains why adherents of either prefer to discuss social issues instead of serious economic issues.) 2. To the extent that the distinction between free enterprise and government involvement exists in the real world, neither side alone can accomplish A. or B., above. A possible exception to this statement is that unfettered government might more than decimate industrial production: yet the Soviet Union industrialized (and polluted like hell). You could call Soviet communism state capitalism or whatever, but it was pretty clearly what would be called economically "liberal" in modern parlance. So this exception might hold.

Still, the likelihood that liberalism or conservatism, considered separately, did or will ever do anything fundamental about smog or other forms of pollution is small.

Why not instead do a cost-benefit of welfare state programs by comparing Sweden's to the USA's? This example would be clear and HBD-friendly, though admittedly unoriginal.

An original take on it might involve doing a cost-benefit within Sweden (as you propose to do with pollution within California's confines), and then contrasting that with a similar intra-USA cost-benefit. The abstract might read: Swedes like the socialistic deal they put together and it works for them, but it loses something in translation here because of its passage over the Atlantic Ocean.

Steve Sailer said...

At $1.50 per gallon, cutting miles per gallon X% is more affordable than at $4.00 per gallon. So, how many extra gallons of gas get burned each year to reduce smog?

Old fogey said...

Good luck in trying to get the numbers, Steve. No one ever wants to know what such things actually cost. When hormone replacement therapy for women was shown to be more harmful than good there was never a $ amount given for the money that went down the drain.And last Tuesday the NYT published a column about the flu vaccine in which an expert in the field admitted that it really doesn't help, especially among the elderly where it is particularly pushed, but is actually more of a PR effort. You might have noticed a few weeks ago, too, that the NYT reported the results of a Cochrane Collaboration study showing that annual physical examinations do no good and and in fact cause unnecessary treatment in many cases. The Times did not think it worthwhile to mention the amount that is spent annually by the government or individuals for such examinations. I am still waiting, too, for the press to mention in a meaningful way the results of an earlier Cochrane meta-analysis concerning mammography. That one has been buried very deeply - and of course the money spent on mammography is huge.

dirk said...

The correct solution to fighting smog would have been Pigovian taxes on pollution per user per mile not EPA regulations on vehicles. We would have achieved the same result at a small fraction of the cost, since incentives would have allowed each driver to make the financial decision that was best for themselves, all leading to the same aggregate result.

Anonymous said...

On the trucking side of things, all emissions rules starting in 07 have been crap. Adding greatly to entry cost and operating costs, as well as being the source of numerous extra breakdowns, as the pollution control systems are fragile and unreliable.

As for the poster who complained about city streets and parking garages, many cities are still using absolutely horrible 2 cycle buses for public transport and other smoke belching monstrosities which would have been retired years, if not decades ago in private service, so kindly ponder that.

Closer to the border, particularly CA, you have ill maintained trucks operated by fly-by-night disasters in waiting catering to the cheap at all costs crowd. Legitimate trucking companies are already operating at peak efficiency because that is what provides peak profits. A .1 increase in MPG can yield $2-4k in additional profits over a driving year, does anyone think government mandates are going to do better?