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The Republican Fight for Dirtier Air

Last month the Senate rejected a bid by Oklahoma’s James Inhofe to roll back new limits on mercury in the air proposed by the Obama administration in December.

It was a rare victory for the environment on Capitol Hill. Earlier in June, congressmen Henry Waxman and Edward Markey issued a scathing report that called the 112th Congress, “the most anti-environment House in the history of Congress,” citing 247 votes to weaken, delay or defeat environmental legislation in a little over a year. They blamed the Republican majority in the House, who are typically all but unanimous in their opposition to new pollution regulations. Markey and Waxman say that during the past year hard won environmental safeguards have been reversed and the EPA has had its hands tied by Republican-sponsored legislation that makes “the issuance of new rules difficult if not impossible.”

Some of the main beneficiaries of weaker laws are the oil, gas and coal industries, which spend millions each year lobbying legislators and government officials. According to data published by the Center For Responsible Politics, House Republicans received more than four times the campaign contributions as Democrats from these industry groups.

Now there is a new fight in the offing over EPA rules announced earlier this month which would tighten restrictions on soot, tiny particles which are a risk factor in a variety of diseases including heart attack, lung cancer, stroke and asthma.

Soot, the visible element in smoke and haze, is produced by oil and coal burning industries, and the diesel exhaust from trucks, trains and boats. While soot levels have been decreasing overall, they remain high in many of the nation’s transportation hubs and inner-city neighborhoods, where asthma rates have skyrocketed in recent years. These tiny particles-- the smaller they are the more dangerous to health-- are irritants which cause stress reactions in human organs like the lungs, brain and circulatory system. Public health experts warn that soot is the most toxic single component in air pollution. It is also the most easily controlled through mechanical scrubbers.

The recent EPA action to limit soot was prompted by a lawsuit filed by a coalition of 11 states, including New York and California, demanding tighter regulations. The agency initially planned to put off announcing its controversial new standards until after the presidential election in November. But a federal court ordered the EPA-- which is mandated by the Clean Air Act to update its particulate regulations every five years-- to do so now.

The new rules, which won’t take full effect until 2020, lower the annual exposure to fine-particle soot from its current limit of 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air to between 12 and 13 micrograms per cubic meter of air. That may not sound like a lot, but advocates say that it will have a big impact, potentially preventing thousands of premature deaths and saving billions in health-care costs.

Something else that the new EPA regulations may have an impact on is the presidential election campaign. Republicans lost no time last month in complaining that the soot restrictions will cost jobs, which our faltering economy can ill afford to loose. 

"Despite the ongoing economic challenges facing our country, the Obama-EPA continues to roll out strict environmental standards that cause severe economic strain on state and local communities, millions of lost jobs, and skyrocketing energy prices," said Inhofe last week

This argument may resonate in crucial swing states of the “rust belt” like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, where unemployment remains high and manufacturing has been declining for decades. But while a recent Pew poll shows that the American public is ambivalent about environmental regulations (about half say they want them strengthened), there is little support for abandoning our current protections. Only 36% of Republicans say that we should roll back existing safeguards. Nevertheless, the weak economy makes new regulations a tough sell this year. 

The president himself has sent mixed messages on his commitment to clean air. Last summer, the Obama administration backed down on its proposed stringent new smog standards, after fierce opposition from Big Energy and conservative politicians.

Obama is not the only one who has reversed himself on pollution in response to political pressures. When he was governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney joined other Northeast states in demanding the tougher mercury regulations which Republicans tried unsuccessfully to overturn last week. A You Tube video has been making the rounds which shows Romney in 2003 pointing to a PG&E power plant saying, “that plant kills people,” and “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people.”

Since running for president, however, the presumptive Republican nominee has changed his tune claiming, for example, that EPA’s proposed mercury cleanup is too aggressive and will destroy jobs. Another argument that Republicans have made is that regulations add to the price that we pay for manufactured goods and basic utilities. But is it a fact that environmental protections hurt Americans economically?

Let’s look at some recent history. During the debate over the original Clean Air Act 20 years ago, the Edison Electric Institute, a group funded by the power-generating industry, predicted that the proposed standards would raise electricity prices by up to 13 percent by around 2009. On the contrary, electric rates actually fell 20 percent as of 2006.

Reuters reports that: “In 1997 the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry group, warned that smog rules would wreak economic havoc. Yet regions that might have been affected actually had slightly better job creation rates on average than the nation as a whole in following years, according to a study by the Center for American Progress.” 

Nobody denies that regulations costs companies money. Yet there is evidence which suggests that the EPA’s new standards may be net job creators, as industry hires workers to retrofit its plants in order to bring them into compliance. A 2002 study conducted by the Washington based think tank “Resources for the Future” found that environmental regulations of four heavily polluting industries-- pulp and paper mills, plastics manufacturers, petroleum refiners, and iron and steel mills-- resulted in slightly higher employment levels since losses in one segment of the industry were typically offset by gains due to increased spending. For every million dollars spent on regulatory compliance, an average of one and a half new jobs were created.

Republicans are right, of course: cleaning up the air can be expensive. But as president Obama-- and even Mitt Romney in his better moments-- must realize, it is not nearly so costly as failing to act. The losses in sick leave, hospital costs, disability insurance and just plain wasted human potential caused by pollution-based illnesses are impossible to calculate. Our political leaders need to affirm that this is the real price that Americans can no longer afford to pay.