Clean Air Act Is Revised Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The 1977 Clean Air Act Amendments tightened regulatory controls to bring all U.S. states into compliance with the standards set forth in the 1970 Clean Air Act.

Summary of Event

The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977 attempted to deal with increasingly complex and serious air-pollution problems in the United States. At the time of its passage, the law was viewed as one of the most detailed, comprehensive, and complex environmental laws ever passed. Clean Air Act Amendments (1977) Air pollution;legislation Pollution;legislation Environmental policy, U.S.;pollution [kw]Clean Air Act Is Revised (Aug. 7, 1977) [kw]Act Is Revised, Clean Air (Aug. 7, 1977) Clean Air Act Amendments (1977) Air pollution;legislation Pollution;legislation Environmental policy, U.S.;pollution [g]North America;Aug. 7, 1977: Clean Air Act Is Revised[02920] [g]United States;Aug. 7, 1977: Clean Air Act Is Revised[02920] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Aug. 7, 1977: Clean Air Act Is Revised[02920] [c]Environmental issues;Aug. 7, 1977: Clean Air Act Is Revised[02920] Byrd, Robert Simpson, Alan K.

The amendments were preceded by the Clean Air Act of 1963, Clean Air Act (1963) which was designed to prevent and reduce air pollution but was a weak statute. Amendments were passed in 1965, when nationwide emissions standards for motor vehicles were established (including the required use of pollution-control devices), and in 1967, when air-quality control regions were designated and criteria for air-quality control were set forth.

The 1970 Clean Air Act Clean Air Act Amendments (1970) established an enduring regulatory framework for air-pollution control and became the basis for the changes made in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977. The 1970 act replaced state-set air-quality standards with provisions for the establishment of national, uniform federal standards for air quality. While the law left the regulation of existing stationary pollution sources to the states, states were required to establish plans, called State Implementation Plans (SIPs), for each air-quality region. These SIPs were subject to approval by the federal government. At the same time, the amendments also imposed stricter antipollution standards on automobile manufacturers.

Evidence accumulated showing that the Clean Air Act was not functioning as it was originally envisioned. There were indications of widespread noncompliance with the SIPs, and many regions did not meet their air-quality deadlines; the deadlines for meeting automobile tailpipe emission standards were extended on several occasions. In addition, while the Clean Air Act had provided for criminal penalties for noncompliance, the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency;Clean Air Act enforcement (EPA), the agency responsible for ensuring compliance with the Clean Air Act, almost always opted for less severe civil actions when it found violations.

Part of the problem with noncompliance was that most states initially were in no position to implement the federal regulations. States had neither the technological capacity nor the resources to deal with the large number of violations. States were also dealing from a weak position, because the hastily adopted SIPs from the early 1970’s were widely regarded as technically flawed and overly ambitious. Furthermore, many states were reluctant to risk the political repercussions of closing down economically profitable plants in order to meet the federal mandates on clean air.

To deal with the states’ lack of compliance with the law, the 1977 amendments were written to address several problems. The 1977 amendments specifically forbade the EPA to agree to compliance dates beyond 1982; in addition, any administrative orders inconsistent with a state’s SIP had to be treated as an SIP revision and had to go through the extensive state and federal approval process. This made revisions much more difficult and forced states to comply with their original SIPs.

Another area addressed was the policy that centered on the prevention of deterioration of relatively clean air. Prior to the 1977 amendments, the EPA had divided clean-air regions into three categories based on how clean the air was in those particular areas. The 1977 amendments formalized these categories and established maximum allowable increases of air pollution for each category. The cleanest areas (national parks and national wilderness areas) were allowed variances of up to eighteen days a year. Areas that previously had not been able to meet the federal standards were given until the end of 1982 to meet those standards. Cities with severe ozone and carbon-monoxide problems were given an extension to 1987. All areas were required to demonstrate regular and consistent emission reductions until compliance was achieved.

Penalties for noncompliance by stationary sources were increased in an attempt to make the cost of noncompliance exceed the expenditures required to achieve compliance. For example, civil penalties of up to $25,000 a day were authorized for violation of the act, and criminal sanctions were imposed on those who knowingly violated the act. States were also required to collect permit fees from major stationary sources.

Finally, the 1977 Clean Air Act Amendments focused heavily on coal-burning power plants. Power plants;coal-burning[coal burning] While these plants contributed approximately half of all electrical power in the United States, they were also the major source of sulfur dioxide, one of the most substantial contributors to acid rain. The amendments required that all new coal-fired power plants utilize the best technological system of continuous emission reductions, essentially requiring the use of sophisticated pollution-reducing equipment on all new power plants that used coal for their primary source of fuel. This single requirement not only mandated what some scientists called the most costly of possible clean-air solutions, but also brought about a highly controversial and divisive debate that broke down along regional lines and lasted well into the following decade.


The largest impact of the 1977 amendments centered on the requirement that all new coal-fired utilities had to install the best continuous emissions-reduction technology to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. Flue gas desulfurization (FGD) systems, Flue gas desulfurization systems commonly called scrubbers, Scrubbers are considered to be the most effective means of reducing pollution—but also the most expensive. This ruling mandating the use of scrubbers set up a regional conflict between states in the East and Midwest, which had the most high-sulfur coal and the greatest number of old, established utility plants, and states in the West, which had the most low-sulfur coal and the fewest old, established utility plants. Because the requirement for scrubbers was only for new plants, and because scrubbers were very expensive to install, the pollution-control costs were loaded disproportionately on new sources and, therefore, on geographic areas where the prospects for new investment in basic industries was strong. The older, less competitive power plants in the eastern and midwestern states benefited because their power systems were already in place; the western states, which were experiencing tremendous population and industrial growth, had to pay the higher costs of installing scrubbers.

These new regulations mandated scrubbers on all new emitters of sulfur dioxide, regardless of whether they burned clean low-sulfur coal or dirty high-sulfur coal. This was a distinct advantage to the eastern and midwestern states, for two reasons. First, these requirements eliminated the incentive for utilities in the Midwest to import low-sulfur western coal to comply with the new-source standards. Utilities instead could continue to use high-sulfur eastern coal, incurring no relative financial penalty for this inferior choice of pollution-control strategies. Second, prior to 1977, utilities in the West could use low-sulfur coal to minimize their emissions cheaply. The 1977 amendments, however, required these utilities to use scrubbers regardless of the sulfur content of the local coal. Essentially, eastern and midwestern states were put at a tremendous financial advantage because of the mandated scrubber rule of the 1977 Clean Air Act Amendments.

The results of this conflict between high- and low-sulfur coal interests were substantial. Senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming stated that people in the West would not forget the unfair treatment that they had received through the 1977 amendments. At the same time, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the majority leader of the Senate, remained determined to protect the interests of his high-sulfur-coal state. Consequently, the Clean Air Act, which was supposed to be amended again in the early 1980’s, became bogged down in a contentious and divisive debate along regional lines. Clean Air Act Amendments (1977) Air pollution;legislation Pollution;legislation Environmental policy, U.S.;pollution

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ackerman, Bruce A., and William T. Hassler. Clean Coal/Dirty Air: Or, How the Clean Air Act Became a Multibillion-Dollar Bail-out for High-Sulfur Coal Producers. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981. Scrutinizes the passage of the 1977 Clean Air Act Amendments, with an emphasis on the bureaucratic struggle to clean up the nation’s coal-fired power plants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bryner, Gary C. Blue Skies, Green Politics: The Clean Air Act of 1990. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1995. Examines what Congress and the executive branch were trying to accomplish in revising the Clean Air Act. Provides an excellent review of the original Clean Air Act and its subsequent amendments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doyle, Jack. Taken for a Ride: Detroit’s Big Three and the Politics of Air Pollution. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000. Chapters 5 and 7 in particular address the American automobile industry’s resistance to the 1970 and 1977 air-pollution regulations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamilton, Michael S. Regulatory Federalism, Natural Resources, and Environmental Management. Washington, D.C.: American Association for Public Administration, 1990. Includes a chapter that describes how the 1977 Clean Air Act Amendments affected visibility protection and the national parks of the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Landy, Marc K., Marc J. Roberts, and Stephen R. Thomas. The Environmental Protection Agency: Asking the Wrong Questions. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Evaluates the role that the Environmental Protection Agency has played in environmental politics. Provides an excellent section on the passage and impact of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lave, Lester B., and Gilbert S. Omenn. Clearing the Air: Reforming the Clean Air Act. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1981. Rejects the notion that progress has been made and argues that most of the air-pollution abatement in the postwar period is attributable to economically induced fuel switching rather than to enforcement of the Clean Air Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marcus, Alfred A. Promise and Performance: Choosing and Implementing an Environmental Policy. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Sets the framework from which the 1977 Clean Air Act Amendments were established by analyzing the formulation and implementation of the 1970 Clean Air Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenbaum, Walter A. Environmental Politics and Policy. 6th ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2004. Provides an overview of clean-air legislation, including a delineation of the major air pollutants and their health effects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schmandt, Jurgen, Judith Clarkson, and Hilliard Roderick. Acid Rain and Friendly Neighbors: The Policy Dispute Between Canada and the United States. Rev. ed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1988. Focuses primarily on the U.S.-Canada acid rain debate, but also presents a fine compilation of scientific and policy findings involving the formulation and implementation of U.S. clean-air legislation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vig, Norman J., and Michael E. Kraft. Environmental Policy in the 1980’s: Reagan’s New Agenda. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1984. Offers a comprehensive look at environmental policy as it developed during the 1980’s, with special reference to what the authors consider legislative failure and administrative success.

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Categories: History