Rough economy for environmental regulators

A worker stands in front of wind turbines at a wind farm

Tess Vigeland: So here's a bit of recent history on the environment. The White House blocked new smog standards until 2013. The Keystone Pipeline -- an oil pipeline set to run through the Midwest to the Gulf -- is making progress. House Republicans have legislation in the works to delay two more air quality regulations.

And now, the Wall Street Journal reports the EPA may ease up on pollution rules for power plants. The EPA responds that it is only making "technical adjustments" to clean air rules. But it was enough to get us wondering whether economic woes are changing the calculation for environmental regulations. Marketplace's Adriene Hill reports.

Adriene Hill: When it comes to environmental regulation, the lackluster economy and dismal job market hasn't -- shall we say -- encouraged high-level intellectual debate.

John Walke: Well, the label "job killing regulation" on Capitol Hill has become cartoonish rhetoric.

John Walke is the Clean Air Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He says "job killer" is like yelling fire in a crowded room.

Walke: Where it causes all other consideration to be set aside.

Playing the jobs card can keep people from the discussing full costs and benefits of regulation. Which, says Harvard Business school professor Robert Stavins, is a problem.

Robert Stavins: This is an area where unfortunately one has to curse both sides of the debate.

These aren't end-of-the-economy-as-we-know-it job destroyers. They aren't miracle economic growth engines. All environmental regulations have pluses and minuses. And right now, economists say, the cost-benefit calculation should include, but not be limited to, the economy.

Michael Greenstone: The costs of these regulations are greater in challenging economic times like the current one.

Michael Greenstone is an economist at MIT.

Greenstone: Whether or not that causes the cost of those regulations to be larger than the benefits, depends on the exact case.

Sure, losing jobs when power plants close down sounds like a bad idea. But immediate job numbers aren't the only part of the calculation. Economists and environmentalists say proposals and regulations should be judged on all of their merits.

Like with the rest of the economy, there's no easy answer.

I'm Adriene Hill for Marketplace.

About the author

Adriene Hill is a senior multimedia reporter for the Marketplace sustainability desk, with a focus on consumer issues and the individual relationship to sustainability and the environment.
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Our selfishness is amazing sometimes. The a sustainable world is no simple matter, but the bottom line in the regulation of pollution is this: we pay now, and save our Earth and our health, or we pay later, when it may be too late.

President Obama has promoted development of clean energy as a way to create jobs as we help the environment. Have those who have decided we can't afford cleaner standards asked their constituents what they want? Have the people living in the shale areas been asked if they want to be party to fracking? Have mountain folks been asked how they feel about their mountaintops being leveled, and their waterways and water sources made unusable, in the drive for non-renewable energy?

Since when do we assume that the rich and powerful who control production of these resources are correct in their assessment of the expense of environmental stewardship?

One sector of the population that might benefit economically is those in Medicine and Pharmaceuticals. As a provider, I am genuinely concerned about a significant upsurge in chronic lung diseases, cancer, and illnesses for which we cannot identify a cause. I much prefer providing health care to treatment of conditions from which the suffering may be equivalent to the palliative therapies we have available.

Let's examine very closely the path we are about to set for ourselves. We are being frightened into running away from a more moderate lifestyle with slower growth. Will this be ruinous, as we are being told? Do we really need to help line the pockets of the rich and powerful by giving our permission to rape the world without paying? Allowing those who can afford to avoid the consequences of the obscene increase of their wealth by the careless exploitation of resources without remediation is tantamount to lying down to be violated.

It is time for concerned, responsible citizens to raise our voices, and make them heard by our representatives, if they still exist. Do we yet carry the hope of a greener future for our children or have we consigned ourselves to an industrial quagmire in the name of economic growth?

When did we become so selfish and undisciplined?

Wow, could this story have been any more vacuous? I am a veteran of horrible media stories on environmental regulation, but the Potemkin quality of this one stunned me. You could have addressed health care costs of asthma and heart disease due to excess ozone and particulate matter, as well as approximate deaths averted and economic costs of past clean air regulation. You could have talked about neurotoxic effects of mercury from power plants and cement manufacturers, looked at the finances of utilities and affected parties, asked what technologies exist to mitigate pollution and at what cost. There is a wealth of economic analysis on these costs, but you chose to include a few sentences that might have been enough to compose a lead to a story, then cued the music before a more lengthy story about professional sports. Potemkin stories like this make for a potemkin society.

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