11/23/2011 07:40 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2012

Giving Thanks for Regulations

In the Broadway hit musical, Book of Mormon, a woman from Uganda envisions paradise as a place where warlords are benevolent and the Red Cross hands out as much flour as you can eat. In other words, the things that inspire hope and gratitude in any part of the world are in the eye of the beholder.

In this season of Thanksgiving in the U.S., I am grateful for clean air, water,and a productive landscape. Oh sure, we still suffer from too much pollution and degradation of these shared resources, but compared to Uganda or many other parts of the globe, we live in paradise. And what provides our comparative advantage in this regard? In a word, regulations.

Environmental laws and regulations are not the evil that some politicians would have you believe. They are the hallmarks of civilization that give us a better quality of life and the ability to conduct business on a level playing field in ways that other countries can only dream about. Take, for instance, our air quality laws.

The Obama administration was wrong to delay implementation of smog-busting rules, especially in the misplaced hopes that conservative opponents would see this as an olive branch and somehow begin to compromise on other tough issues. Our air quality regulations, many of which were first tested in my state of California and proven effective both for public health and the economy, differentiate us from Beijing or Delhi, where a lack of such rules means you are inhaling the equivalent amount of toxins of two packs of cigarettes a day -- just by breathing the air.

By comparison, a study released last March by the USEPA documents about $2 trillion in benefits by 2020 from our air quality laws, if we actually implement them all, including prevention of about 160,000 deaths, 200,000 cases of heart disease, and over twenty two million missed school and work days -- each year (note to Republican opponents of these regulations: the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act were signed into law by President George H.W. Bush with support from both parties).

Let's also consider water quality regulations. Polluted stormwater runoff impacts the U.S. economy with massive dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico that decimate commercial fisheries. Such unchecked pollution also seeps into groundwater, forcing cities to spend millions on treatment systems. Although the Clean Water Act regulates stormwater pollution and has made great strides towards cleaning up toxic runoff from sources such as agricultural runoff, industrial sites, and roadways, politics have prevented state and federal regulators from finishing the job. But as with our air quality, it could be even worse if we had no regulation at all.

Consider Nigeria, where polluted stormwater and dumping from oil fields has fouled entire river systems, or Ecuador, where rivers have literally burned with such waste. The gold rush mentality that allowed uncontrolled exploitation of those resources is now at work in the U.S. where regulators are under pressure to approve hydraulic fracturing of underground formations to extract natural gas, regardless of demonstrated contamination of drinking water supplies. I'm not against domestic natural gas development, but it can and must be done sustainably, because one thing that all environmental degradation has in common, regardless of nationality, is that it is far costlier to clean up a mess than to prevent one. In other words, regulation saves money.

OK, I admit that as my family gathers to give thanks this holiday season, environmental regulation may not be the first thing on my list. But I do appreciate the benefits that thoughtful laws and regulations deliver and I give thanks to those leaders and officials with the courage to keep us moving forward, instead of allowing America to deteriorate into a third world country.