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 the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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