By Eugene Robinson
Republicans are trying to sell the false premise that protecting the environment inevitably means sacrificing jobs. President Obama should denounce this snake oil for what it is—rather than appear to accept it.
The GOP presidential candidates are in remarkable agreement on two articles of faith: The human imagination, apparently, is incapable of conjuring any circumstance under which any tax may ever be raised. And the Environmental Protection Agency is a sinister laboratory where Birkenstock-shod evildoers conjure regulations purposefully designed to rob Americans of their God-given jobs.
Actually, I’m being somewhat unfair to Mitt Romney, who tempers his EPA-bashing with the admission that he supports the agency “in much of its mission.” When he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney favored initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, perhaps even a regional cap-and-trade system. He doesn’t bring this up much on the campaign trail, but his opponents do.
The other contenders range from anti-EPA all the way to ... well, to Michele Bachmann’s pledge to abolish the agency. Bachmann told an Iowa crowd last month that if she is elected president, “I guarantee you the EPA will have doors locked and lights turned off, and they will only be about conservation. It will be a new day and a new sheriff in Washington.”
At the GOP debate in New Hampshire, Bachmann added that “there is no other agency like the EPA. It should really be renamed the Job-Killing Organization of America.” Newt Gingrich agrees that the EPA—established in 1970 by that noted tree-hugger, Richard Nixon—should be dismantled.
Rick Perry has an actual record as an EPA-basher, having taken the agency to court in an effort to block rules on greenhouse gas emissions. Obama’s “EPA regulations are killing jobs all across America,” Perry said. His book “Fed Up!” cites an estimate by the conservative Heritage Foundation of catastrophic job losses from greenhouse gas rules. Perry also refers to Al Gore as “a false prophet of a secular carbon cult,” whatever on Earth that means.
Ron Paul says most environmental questions should be resolved through the courts. Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman take the orthodox position: that any new environmental regulations should be put on hold because enacting them would kill jobs.
On Friday, Obama appeared to cede the point. He blocked new EPA rules limiting ground-level ozone—otherwise known as smog—as part of a larger effort to reduce “regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty” for U.S. businesses. The move came hours after a disappointing labor report showing that the economy added no new jobs in August.
The move to block the ozone rules may make sense politically, since it defuses an issue on which Republicans were prepared to hammer Obama and the Democrats all year. As a matter of public policy, however, it’s wrong.
In developing the rule that Obama nixed, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was simply fulfilling the agency’s prime mission: protecting human health.
“Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion,” says the agency’s website. “It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Ground-level ozone also can reduce lung function and inflame the linings of the lungs. Repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue.”
In 2008, the Bush administration set a permissible standard for ozone that exceeded the limit recommended by EPA scientists. Jackson sought to bring the standard within the range that her agency deems safe.
As for the predictions of massive job losses, they sound just like the warnings we heard when environmental regulations ended acid rain, or ensured that the citizens of Cleveland no longer had to worry about the Cuyahoga River catching fire.
There is plenty of evidence that the net effect of smart environmental regulation is to create jobs, not destroy them. New, more efficient plants are built; older, dirtier facilities are retrofitted. Companies innovate by developing new technology—ultimately making U.S. industry more competitive. And everyone is a little healthier.
As Jackson noted in a statement, the Obama administration has made great strides in limiting such atmospheric pollutants as sulfur dioxide and mercury. Not every conceivable environmental regulation makes sense. But the ozone rule seemed well-grounded, and the objections to it were more political than rational.
We don’t have to choose between jobs and health. History demonstrates we can have both.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group