As wildfires continue to burn in Canada, air quality in New York City got so bad recently that spending the day outdoors would be the equivalent to smoking half a pack of cigarettes. Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently had the worst air quality in the country. Mask-wearing has resumed in full not because of COVID-19, but because the smog is so thick the sky appears yellow. State environmental departments have urged residents to limit vehicle idling, to combine trips for errands, and avoid driving at all to minimize pollution.
They needn’t worry. This short-lived air quality crisis is revealing one of the best-kept secrets in environmental policy: America is a world leader in clean air, even though we still burn fossil fuels in substantial quantities. In fact, our environmental success may even be because of fossil fuels.
You’ll never hear on the news that America’s air is clean. But the EPA’s decades of air quality data show that air pollution has plummeted nearly 80% since 1970. In fact, our air is now so clean that manmade pollution is nearly indistinguishable from naturally occurring levels caused by things like dust, pollen, and — you guessed it — wildfires.
How do we know this? The COVID-19 lockdowns were unfortunate for many reasons, ruining many lives and livelihoods through forced isolation, but they offered a useful experiment. What would happen if we took all our cars off the road for weeks, even months, at a time? Surely, experts thought, we would return to what we would assume were the glimmering blue skies and crystal-clear waters prior to the Industrial Revolution.
But they were wrong. Air quality didn’t meaningfully change during the lockdowns in most major U.S. cities. In some cities, it actually got worse, indicating that natural sources and weather patterns have far more impact than human activity. Those predictions were based on wistful memories viewed through rose-colored glasses, not founded on science.
Other countries aren’t so lucky, of course. The dramatic before-and-after lockdown photos depicting hazy horizons barely visible through clouds of smog next to clear blue skies — as if destroying economies and creating a breeding ground for suicide and mental illness was all worth it for the sake of a pretty photo — were all from countries like India and China, notorious for their toxic air pollution.
Particulate levels in Delhi were recently classified “hazardous,” leading to school closures and restrictions on vehicle traffic.
Fossil fuels aren’t the problem here. After all, the United States and Asian countries use fossil fuels almost exclusively for electric generation. Lack of pollution control technology is the real problem. And fortunately for us, America is leading the way.
That’s why canceling American energy is one of the most dangerous actions our federal government could take. Federal lawmakers and regulators are under immense pressures from powerful virtue-signaling financial institutions and boisterous activist organizations to eliminate fossil fuels. (Never mind the inconvenient truth that renewable energy just isn’t reliable — and is astronomically expensive.)
But if the environment is really the goal of the Biden administration, tightening the noose on American oil, gas, and coal is the worst possible solution. Instead of apologizing for producing the energy we — and the whole world — need to survive, our White House should unabashedly support the fossil fuel industry, aiming to share our clean, efficient, responsibly produced fossil fuels with the world.
When then-energy secretary Rick Perry, who brokered the first liquefied natural gas deal with India, half-jokingly called American LNG “freedom gas,” he had a point. Supporting American energy not only promotes political freedom to our allies — prying power away from the hostile, totalitarian nations with a vise grip on global energy prices — but also freedom to experience the benefits of economic prosperity: clean air and water.
Imagine how blue India’s skies would be if its 1.4 billion lives were powered by clean, affordable, and reliable American energy. The world would be a beautiful place indeed.