12/16/2010 01:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Never Retreat

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the catbird seat if forced to defend itself against any attempt by the new House Republican majority to roll back environmental regulations, and attempts there will be. Some members of the GOP are making it very clear they hope to reduce the scope of the EPA's regulatory powers on the grounds it is harming the economy.

Whose economy, you might ask? Could it be corporate bigwigs who would realize short term increases in profit if they were not subject to "burdensome" pollution abatement requirements?

Let's begin with environmental regulations' ethical and practical justifications. The express purpose of these rules is to protect public health, and strong-minded EPA Administrator Jackson would be expected to repeatedly stress that point if called before a Republican inquisition. Would her interrogators be prepared to be perceived as more concerned about corporate revenues than the physical wellbeing of John Q. Public? How palatable would a temporary upward spike in business community profits from weaker cleanup requirements be if it resulted in many employees becoming too sick to show up for work?

Are environmental regulations really the economic dead weight that the Republicans make them out to be? The business community has been singing that same song about environmental restraints for decades while recording record profits.

GOP lawmakers complain about the impact of well documented regulatory compliance costs, but pay scant attention to the much more expansive benefits, which are projected numbers and hence of an unrealized nature. Overlooked is the fact that although the benefits are estimates, solid research accords them a high degree of probability.

Unlike its Republican critics, the EPA looks at both sides of the ledger and usually finds that the monetary value of its regulations' benefits far exceeds the costs. Government scientists have estimated that a pending air pollution rule to reduce ozone smog and opposed by the Republicans would prevent some 12,000 premature deaths and save the nation $100 billion in health costs. Another imminent air pollution regulation to curb toxic chemical emissions from boilers is considered too stringent by the GOP despite estimates it would avert 5000 premature deaths and provide the nation with $44 billion in health benefits.

If Administrator Jackson comes under fire, she also has the judiciary in her camp. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon emissions. A federal District Court recently rejected industry's effort to block specific EPA regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions from going into effect January 2.

Some environmentalists fear that the EPA may have been intimidated by the GOP, given the agency's announcement of a six month postponement of the smog control regulation and a year long deferral of the boiler initiative. Administrator Jackson vehemently denies any capitulation, declaring that the Agency simply wants extra time to formulate the documentation to present the strongest case.

Let's hope this is so, because Ms. Jackson has no reason to knuckle under to Republican pressure. If GOP lawmakers try to discredit her and her agency's mission at congressional hearings, they run a substantial risk of embarrassing themselves. That's the chance you take when you go after someone on the side of the angels.

Edward Flattau's fourth book Green Morality is now available.