THE BLOG
06/19/2013 11:56 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2013

False Dichotomy

President Obama's environmental legacy is at risk. That became glaringly evident when Obama's new budget director, Sylvia Mathews Burwell recently outlined White House policy. "The Administration seeks to maintain a balance between our obligation to protect the health, welfare, and safety of Americans, and our commitment to promoting economic growth, job creation, competition and, innovation."

In employing the term "balance" Burwell set up a false choice between environmental protection and economic growth. Sad to say, that has been a familiar refrain--and failing--of previous administrations. "Balance" all too often has been used as a code word for "giving away the store" to industrial polluters rather than impose tough new environmental regulations.

In her statement, Burwell used "balance" to describe the resolution of conflict between environmental protection and economic growth. Such terminology plays right into the hands of commercial interests by reinforcing their argument that pollution is a legitimate cost of doing business and thus should be treated with tolerance. Indeed, they assert that economics is the equal of, if not more important than, environmental safeguards in pursuing the best interests of society.

The truth is that over the long haul, environmental protection and a robust economy are two sides of the same coin. For prosperity to be sustainable, the economy must function within a healthy, relative stable environmental framework.

"Balance" should only be struck after public and environmental health have been elevated above (not replaced) profit. Congress codified this concept in the Clean Air Act, which requires pollution standards to be set solely on the basis of health criteria. Economics only enters the equation in implementing the standards. Unfortunately, Congress has not explicitly assigned this prioritization to most other environmental legislation.

In the short term, strengthening environmental regulation can sometimes cause some job displacement. But government funded retraining programs and unemployment insurance could ease the temporary disruption. Furthermore, a number of studies have found that environmental regulations result in net job gains. The pollution abatement business and "green" energy enterprises are labor intensive, and tough regulations sometimes force marginal plants on the brink of closing to modernize and thus save jobs that would otherwise be lost. Yes, companies might realize a little less profit because of higher pollution abatement overhead costs. Keep in mind, however, that in the last 40 years, corporate America has flourished despite environmental regulations it claimed would drive it into bankruptcy.

To have an environmental legacy of note, President Obama must risk challenging the considerable lure of immediate economic gratification. That means engaging in a "balancing" act with regulation only after ascribing higher priority to public and environmental health reminiscent of the Clean Air Act. Ms. Burwell needs to receive her new marching orders from the President posthaste.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?