In a historic move last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced sweeping new air quality regulations -- the first ever to severely restrict the levels of mercury, arsenic and other carcinogens being spewed into the atmosphere. The new rules call for scrubbers to be installed on smokestacks, which will take out 90 percent of the mercury and also remove dangerous particulates from the air. This is good news for anyone who lives downwind of a fossil-fuel burning power plant, 40 percent of which lack modern pollution controls.
John Walke, the director of the Clean Air Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council told The Huffington Post last week that, "The electric power sector is far and away the largest emitter of toxic air pollution in America." But the Obama administration has -- until now -- been slow to confront this politically powerful industry, despite successfully tightening standards on dry cleaners and several other small scale industrial polluters.
In making her announcement, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson predicted that taking nearly 70,000 pounds of mercury, a deadly neurotoxin out of our air we breath, will prevent 11,000 premature deaths and 130,000 cases of aggravated asthma among children. It will also protect the unborn, says the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in applauding the measure. Over 400,000 infants are born every year with elevated mercury levels, which can harm their developing brains.
Ms, Jackson said that the clean up, which will cost industry $10 billion, will save over $90 billion in medical costs. And that is not even counting the benefits from the rising IQs (and hence future employment prospects) of our no longer brain-poisoned young people. It will also create nearly 1.5 million jobs, or nearly 300,000 jobs a year on average over the next five years for those who retrofit the facilities and produce, install and monitor the pollution control devices that will bring the antiquated plants up to speed, according to a report published earlier this year by the University of Massachusetts.
One landmark study conducted over a decade ago refuted the myth that environmental regulations kill jobs. According to The Washington Post:
The researchers concluded that higher spending to comply with environment rules does not cause "a significant change" in industry employment. When jobs were lost, they were often made up elsewhere in the same industry. For every $1 million companies spent, as many as one to two net jobs were added to the economy.
So the new clean air rules will be a net job creator that will pump up sagging local economies. Great news that should appeal even to cost-conscious Republicans! Well, not exactly. In recent months, Republicans have been pushing for a law that would limit the EPA's ability to reduce particulates and mercury pollution.
The TRAIN (Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation) Act was passed by the Congress in September. Another bill that would delay new pollution standards -- the Regulatory Time-Out Act -- was introduced to the Senate earlier this year.
There was a time when conservative meant conserving what is valuable in the culture and the environment (remember the "conservation movement") and protecting the health of the born and the unborn -- but no longer. As New York Times commentator Paul Krugman points out, since the election of Barack Obama as president, the Republican party has taken a radical anti-environmental turn, opposing even the most modest proposed regulations and threatening to roll back hard won protections.
The worst of it is that the Obama administration has a habit of caving in to Republican pressure in this regard. In July 2011, EPA administrator Jackson proposed tough new air- and water-quality rules, to cut smog and clean up our nation's lakes and rivers. But in September, the president bowed to intense industry lobbying and congressional efforts to override EPA authority by abandoning the proposed guidelines.
Obama's failures to stand up to the right wing jihad against the environment has alienated him from some earlier supporters, who had been encouraged by his campaign promises to expect that as president he would push for a strong green agenda. Instead, many complain of his lackluster record, including Al Gore who claims that Obama has "failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change."
Obama does have some notable environmental successes to boast of. He raised fuel economy standards for cars and pushed through tax credits for renewable energy production which have already increased the nation's solar and wind capacity by nearly half. The president can also take some credit for helping to improve air quality in America's largest urban areas with several new rules governing emissions.
Obama's decision to back up the EPA on its latest effort to restrict mercury in the air may be a harbinger of what is to come, as the president prepares for his re-election campaign and works to shore up waning support from his progressive base. But Obama will have to stand up to the Republicans in the House and Senate who are certain to fight hard to kill the new rules. Industry groups also are threatening to take the administration to court in an effort to block the regulations. How the president responds to these clean air opponents in the months ahead will be an important test of his mettle which environmentalist and others concerned with the health and safety of Americans will be watching closely.