Gulf Coast oil refiners and chemical processors say that a lot, but regulators are doing precious little to rein in what the industry euphemistically calls “upset” emissions.
Upset emissions are inadvertent releases of chemicals by industrial operations when something goes awry. And things seem to go awry awfully frequently. An ExxonMobil refinery in Baton Rouge, La., was averaging two accidental releases every week during one grim stretch.
That’s according to an analysis by The Center for Public Integrity, which found that upset emissions are more prevalent than industry admits or government knows. Some highlights from the center’s investigative report:
[A 411-barrel chemical leak last year] has played out again and again at the sprawling, 2,400-acre ExxonMobil Baton Rouge complex, which encompasses an oil refinery and a chemical plant, and dwarfs the Standard Heights community. The leak marks the 1,068th upset emissions event at the compound in the last eight years, according to a database of incident reports compiled by the Bucket Brigade. Of these events, 172 involved benzene, a carcinogen that can trigger headaches, dizziness and rapid heart rate.
Exxon’s chemical plant had 265 of all incidents. At the refinery, the data show 803 accidental releases over these years; at its height, the facility averaged two a week. …
The steady hazards extend far beyond Baton Rouge. In the Gulf states of Texas and Louisiana, the vast number of plastics, power and gas plants provide an on-the-ground case study of a national problem.
“Non-routine” upset emissions have become regular occurrences at oil refineries, chemical plants and manufacturing facilities.
The upset emissions can pose serious health risks, but the oil and chemical companies say there’s nothing to worry about.
Dr. Mark D’Andrea, at the University of Texas Cancer Center, began tracking 4,000 residents exposed to the poster child of all upsets — the “40-day Release” at the BP refinery, in Texas City, which belched 514,795 pounds of benzene and 20 other pollutants throughout the spring of 2010. Earlier this year, D’Andrea unveiled preliminary data showing the residents have “significantly higher” white-blood cell and platelet counts than their Houston counterparts. The data suggests BP’s release may have increased their risk of developing such cancers as leukemia, the doctor says.
In a statement, BP says it does “not believe any negative health impacts resulted from” its 40-day release. “To our knowledge, the University Cancer Centers’ pilot study does not support a claim for any plaintiff alleging injury from that flaring and has no relevance to those claims,” the company wrote, referring to pending litigation filed by 47,830 residents and workers against BP alleging health ailments caused by the release. D’Andrea has not been hired as an expert witness for either side in the case, but has testified in pre-trial discovery.
“Do coal and diesel trains make for unhealthy air?”
Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Washington-Bothell, thinks that’s a fair question to consider as Washington state grapples with whether to allow the construction of coal-export terminals that could triple the amount of daily coal-train traffic chugging through the state.
But Jaffe, whose lab has published more than 100 peer-reviewed papers on air pollution, hasn’t been able to scare up funding to research the potential air-quality impacts of those coal trains. In the absence of dollars from the usual government or corporate channels, he has turned to the internet to crowd-fund this vital research. Jaffe started a page on Microryza, a sort of Kickstarter for scientific research (a great idea with a name that unfortunately does not roll off the tongue). He writes:
Coal trains may … leave behind a trail of fine coal dust in the air that is hazardous to [breathe]. In Washington State, there are proposals to substantially increase the number of trains carrying coal through our region. Yet we know almost nothing about the impact these trains will have on air quality along the rail lines. Before these decisions are made, it is essential to gather high quality scientific data on the impacts trains currently have on air quality in the region so that we can accurately forecast the environmental impact the increased train traffic would have on our region. Ironically, while state and local agencies appear to support this type of work, they have been unable to identify a funding mechanism. Thus, we believe crowd-funding is an appropriate way to support this project.
As of this writing, the project had raised almost $16,000 of its $18,000 goal.
Jaffe is wading into one of the most contentious environmental battles in the country. At a series of public hearings in the state last fall intended to gather input on what an environmental review of proposed coal-export terminals should study, attendees — the vast majority in opposition to the terminals — pleaded with county, state, and federal representatives to consider all the myriad impacts of the plan: the coal mining in Montana and Wyoming, the coal trains traversing several states and slicing through busy cities, the increased shipping traffic through Puget Sound’s scenic waterways, and the climate impacts when all that coal is eventually burned. Terminal supporters, on the other hand, argued that the environmental impact statement should look only at the effects of the terminals themselves. The government still hasn’t decided what the review will include.
But no matter what the official environmental impact statement ends up covering, it looks likely that Jaffe’s research will be funded and, once completed, available online to anyone who cares to read it. The use of his crowd-funding strategy in such a high-profile, high-stakes environmental battle adds an interesting twist to the usual David-and-Goliath tale of grassroots activism vs. corporate interests.
What’s fascinating about Jaffe’s experiment is that big industrial developments like coal terminals have long been able to limit official study of their projects. …
But the Web makes this framework moot. There’s now little stopping a determined scientist from going rogue — from studying whatever he or she wants and submitting the results straight to the court of public opinion.
If funded successfully, Jaffe’s research will take place this summer, with data analysis following over the fall and winter of 2013-2014. The government’s final environmental impact statement will not be issued until 2014 or 2015. Stay tuned.
Kevin Drum has a fantastic piece in Mother Jones about the connection between lead and crime, as Philip noted earlier. It turns out that the rise and subsequent plunge in violent crime over the last half-century tracks almost exactly with the rise and decline of lead in the environment, mainly due to leaded gasoline. Through various studies, the correlation has been found at the international, national, state, city, and even neighborhood level. And there is copious neurological research showing that “even moderately high levels of lead exposure are associated with aggressivity, impulsivity, ADHD, and lower IQ,” which makes a pretty strong (if defeasible) case for causation.
It’s a fascinating story for all sorts of reasons — and Drum’s been adding more tidbits on his blog — but as I was reading, the thing that kept striking me is how perfectly the lead fight encapsulates all the promise and perils of pollution fights generally.
We start using something before we understand whether it’s safe. We begin to discover it’s not safe. Industry obscures the science and viciously battles off regulation for as long as possible, forecasting economic doom. Lots of people get sick and die while they do so. Finally some regulations are put in place. The costs of complying turn out to be lower than anyone predicted. The benefits turn out to be much greater than anyone predicted. The pollutant turns out to be more harmful than originally thought. Despite all of the above, industry continues battling efforts to further reduce the pollutant, while claiming credit for the benefits of reducing it as much as they were forced to.
Over and over and over, this story plays out. Yet with each new pollution fight, it’s as though we’ve never had all the previous ones. (See: chlorofluorocarbons, mercury, smog, phthalates, etc.)
But there are other aspects of the lead story that resonate as well. For instance, one of the great mysteries in Drum’s piece is why, with the accumulation of so much evidence, criminologists and policymakers have not taken the lead explanation/problem more seriously.
I suspect two things are at work. One, we think of pollution as an “environmental problem,” which we have compartmentalized, both institutionally and mentally. Those are the problems where greens fight industries over public health. The notion that environmental pollutants have material (and large!) effects on crime, family life, population density and migration, economic inequality, productivity, and employment just doesn’t get much attention. We have trouble thinking holistically.
The second reason Drum identifies as “interest groups”:
Political conservatives want to blame the social upheaval of the ’60s for the rise in crime that followed. Police unions have reasons for crediting its decline to an increase in the number of cops. Prison guards like the idea that increased incarceration is the answer. Drug warriors want the story to be about drug policy. If the actual answer turns out to be lead poisoning, they all lose a big pillar of support for their pet issue. And while lead abatement could be big business for contractors and builders, for some reason their trade groups have never taken it seriously.
Environmentalism has always had an interest-group problem. There are always powerful interest groups that benefit from polluting. By contrast, the only interest group that fights for the kind of broad, diffuse increase in social welfare produced by pollution reduction is … environmentalism.
Which isn’t nothing! Organized environmentalism has won a string of victories over various air and water pollutants over the last half-century — victories that are the envy of other countries. But many, many times, it has been stymied for want of powerful, monied interests on its side. The public’s side.
And environmentalism has reached its limits with climate change. There are just too many interest groups that stand to lose if emissions are sharply reduced, while the increases in social welfare are (or seem) distant in time and space. That’s what all the “green jobs” and “military green” and “corporate green” pushes have been about: convincing interest groups that they stand to gain. Unfortunately, interest groups that don’t quite exist yet aren’t as powerful as those that have been around for a century. Like Machiavelli said, “there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new one.”
Another thing in the lead story that resonates: The huge decline in crime was not something anyone predicted when they were fighting against leaded gasoline. What had been shown was that lead screws up young brains, and so they predicted fewer screwed-up brains. But when people have healthier brains, they’re also more productive, and the economy benefits. They also commit less crime, so society benefits. They are also more caring and supportive of their own children, so future generations benefit. Etc. Etc. These are second- and third-order effects, “system of system” effects, which are incredibly difficult to predict beforehand. Doing so requires all sorts of heroic assumptions and educated guesses. Most such effects never show up in official cost-benefit analysis.
That kind of epistemological conservatism is necessary; you can’t make policy based on people’s competing hunches about second-order effects. And yet! Benefits to public health do have these positive knock-on effects. Perhaps we can’t predict them in advance, or fully quantify them, but we can learn from history. We know that public health benefits ripple outward. That knowledge should count when policy is made.
And finally, note that the job on lead is not done. Lots and lots of it remains in our environment, mainly in soil and buildings and homes with lead paint. We could benefit immensely by further reducing it. Drum:
Put this all together and the benefits of lead cleanup could be in the neighborhood of $200 billion per year. In other words, an annual investment of $20 billion for 20 years could produce returns of 10-to-1 every single year for decades to come. Those are returns that Wall Street hedge funds can only dream of.
And yet, we’re not doing it, not in any serious way. Not only are we not applying the lessons of lead to other pollution fights, we’re not even applying the lessons of lead to the lead fight. Why don’t we learn?
Anyway, enough rambling. Read Drum’s story. It is as clear a distillation as you’ll ever find of glories and dysfunctions of environmental cleanup.
One of the biggest water polluters in our country is the factory farm. In 2008, a Government Accountability Office report panned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to know where most of these farms were located, let alone if they were releasing their manure into rivers, lakes and streams.
So in early 2011, the EPA announced a rule asking such farms, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs, to submit basic information, like their address and how many animals they have, to the agency. On Friday, July 23, EPA quietly announced they were withdrawing that rule, planning instead to try to collect the data from the existing records held by states, even though they’ve tried that before, with poor results.
In trying to understand why the EPA would back off such a seemingly-innocuous yet important data collection project, I imagined myself inside a meeting of EPA clean water officials as they made the decision to withdraw the rule.
Setting: A 10-top table in a soulless gray-hued conference room, Federal Triangle, Washington, D.C.
Official One (storms into room, slams hand on table): I wish those House Republicans would all go on a schmoozy farm tour and fall into a manure lagoon! I can’t believe they accused us of flying spy drones over American farms.
Official Two (looking worn): Well, we are flying planes over factory farms in Nebraska and Iowa.
Official One: Or if we check up on them with flyovers, where we can see manure flowing into waterways.
Official Two: Well, our work will get a little easier when we at least know how many factory farms there are, how many animals they have, where they are located, and how they manage their manure. I mean, how can we regulate the biggest source of water pollution in the country if we don’t even know where they are?
Official One: Yeah, I’m glad we’re going to release that rule requiring CAFOs to report those details to us soon. We’ve been working at getting better intel on them for over a decade!
Enter Official Three
Official Three (looking dejected): Hi guys.
Officials One and Two: Hey.
Official Three: So…you know how it’s an election year, and those Nebraska senators just gave us a bunch of shit for the aerial flights over CAFOs? That’s not playing too well in the farm belt.
Official One: But these guys are in an industrial occupation! Their cows, pigs, and chickens produce three times as much poop as all Americans every year. And we don’t even know where it’s going! Not knowing where they’re located or what they are doing with their waste is like not knowing where sewage treatment plants are located, and if they are following the correct protocol for managing waste.
Official Three: Well, it’s just going to have to wait. We’re going to withdraw our rule requiring CAFOs to report basic data.
Official Two: People who care about clean water are going to be pissed.
Official Three: Well, we are going to try and work with the states to gather that information from them.
Official Three: I know, but it’s really the only option right now. So deal with it. We’re going to work with the Association of Clean Water Administrators to get the data on CAFOs from states, and maybe this time around it will be a little better.
It’s not like anyone gives a damn about clean water when they’re about to run out of unemployment insurance anyway. If you don’t like it, move to the Netherlands. They regulated their dairy CAFOs so strict that half of them moved over here.
Official Two: Okay. So let me get this straight. We’re withdrawing our proposal to collect information about addresses, contact details, animal numbers, and manure management on 20,000 of the nation’s most polluting farms, even though we have a legal agreement with three major environmental groups saying we will do this?
Official Three: Yes. But maybe we’ll release the withdrawal notice late on a Friday, after everyone’s left the office.
Well, it’s four-o-clock. Want to hit up Harry’s? I’m buying.
The BLM lets Peabody lease public land for next to nothing and strip-mine it for coal.
On Thursday, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is scheduled to hold an “auction” for 721 million tons of taxpayer-owned coal in the Powder River Basin.
This is for the North Porcupine tract, and like the South Porcupine tract that BLM leased to Peabody last month — even though this coal is owned by you and me — the lease was drawn up by Peabody itself for its own profit. This is what’s known as a “lease by application,” and under BLM’s corrupt coal-leasing program, Peabody will almost certainly be the only bidder and pay next to nothing.
WildEarth Guardians’ 2009 report “UnderMining the Climate” [PDF] found that over the last 20 years, only three of 21 lease by applications had more than one bidder. Since Peabody knows it will face no competitive pressure, it can simply offer the lowest possible price, secure in the knowledge that if it doesn’t meet BLM’s absurdly low minimum price, it can just try again later. In fact, that’s just what happened with the South Porcupine tract; Peabody’s initial offer of just $0.90 per ton was rejected as too low by the BLM — so they simply held another auction a few weeks later and accepted Peabody’s offer of $1.11 per ton. In both “auctions” Peabody was the only bidder.
Incredibly, BLM’s coal-leasing program deliberately encourages this uncompetitive process. Allowing lease by applications was a key change made possible once the BLM moved to decertify the Powder River Basin as a coal-producing region — even though it’s the source of almost half the coal mined in the U.S. BLM is supposed to manage this coal “in the best interests of the nation,” and it has a process meant to determine the fair market value of a lease. But as Tom Sanzillo explains [PDF], the BLM’s methods dramatically undervalue the coal, so much so that it has amounted to a $28.9 billion subsidy over the last 30 years.
It’s clear that the BLM’s coal-leasing program is deliberately designed to benefit a few coal mining companies like Peabody and Arch at the expense of U.S. taxpayers. This has become even more outrageous now that coal mining companies are seeking to dramatically expand exports of this taxpayer-owned coal. And that’s why Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has called [PDF] for a Government Accountability Office examination of the BLM’s coal-leasing practices.
Beyond the lost revenue, however, BLM’s undervaluing of this coal is helping fuel the devastating impacts to public health, the environment, and our climate system that inevitably accompany mining and burning this much coal. The BLM is facing a lawsuit from WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club because it ignores the impacts of the greenhouse gases that will result from leasing this coal.
And the amount of carbon pollution that will be emitted when this coal is burned is enormous.
The 721 million tons of coal contained in Thursday’s South Porcupine lease amounts to 1,196,456,240 metric tons of CO2 — just over a billion metric tons, or a gigaton of CO2. That’s over 10 times the 101 million metric tons of CO2 that the federal government hopes to reduce its own emissions over a decade-long period under President Obama’s executive order. Despite the fact that the emissions from burning this coal would not be possible without the BLM’s leasing activities, the government does not include emissions associated with federal leasing of coal, oil, and gas in its inventory of federal emissions.
We can also make sense of the vast amount of carbon pollution we’re talking about here with the help of the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator. The emissions from the 721 million tons of coal in the South Porcupine is equivalent to the annual emissions of over 234 million passenger cars — that’s nearly all the cars in the U.S. Another way of measuring this coal — especially important for those in the Pacific Northwest resisting the industry’s efforts to ship it through their communities for export to Asia — is that 721 million tons of coal is enough to fill 6.5 million train cars.
The BLM’s corrupt coal-leasing program is fueling climate change with billions of tons of carbon pollution, and it’s been a rip-off for U.S. taxpayers for decades. If the BLM proceeds with the auction of the North Porcupine tract Thursday, they can expect to be confronted by protesters. How long does the industry think it can keep this boondoggle going as it seeks to turn the American West into a resource colony?
Here is yet another indication that women are greener and, yes, better than men.
According to a new study in Social Science Research, “controlling for other factors, in nations where women’s status is higher, CO2 emissions are lower.”
Study coauthors Christina Ergas and Richard York, sociologists at the University of Oregon–Eugene, write:
even when controlling for a variety of measures of “modernization,” world-system position, and democracy, nations where women have higher political status — as indicated by the length of time women have had the right to vote and women’s representation in parliament and ministerial government — tend to have lower CO2 emissions per capita. This ﬁnding suggests that efforts to improve women’s political status around the world, clearly worthy on their own merits, may work synergistically with efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and avert dramatic global climate change.
If we want better decisions, women need to hold about one-third of decision-making positions, according to research cited by Ergas and York. At lower levels of representation, women’s “voices may be ignored, they may feel too intimidated to comment, or they may not be particularly representative of women in general, having been selected because their views were consistent with the men in the organization.”
The Ergas/York paper includes an interesting overview of recent social science research on gender and the environment. A few choice nuggets:
“nations with higher proportions of women in parliament ratify a greater number of environmental treaties”
“women in the United States demonstrate greater scientiﬁc knowledge of climate change”
women “tend to perceive environmental risks as more threatening”
women “are less optimistic about the potential to solve problems by relying solely on technical ﬁxes”
women “are more active in environmental reform projects”
“although they are not as active as men in mainstream environmental organizations, women are estimated to make up 60% to 80% of grassroots environmental organization membership”
“women often cite their roles as caregivers as the primary reason they are active in grassroots environmental movements”
Here in the U.S., as of last year, men held 83.2 percent of seats in Congress, 88 percent of governorships, and 76.7 percent of state legislator positions. No wonder we’re such a mess.
Thursday morning, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue argued that
“free enterprise” requires a future of accelerated, unending global
warming. Supporting expanded fracking, shale oil, and tar-sands
development, including the Keystone XL pipeline, Donohue said that the
United States should burn hundreds of billions of tons of fossil fuels for hundreds of years:
We have 1.4 trillion barrels of oil, enough to
last at least 200 years. We have 2.7 quadrillion cubic feet of natural
gas, enough to last 120 years. We have 486 billion tons of coal, enough
to last more than 450 years—and we need to use more of this strategic resource cleanly and wisely here at home while selling it around the world.
Burning that amount of fossil fuel would generate 444 billion metric
tons of carbon dioxide from the oil, 135 billion tons from the natural
gas, and 1.3 trillion tons from the coal. To maintain a climate
compatible with civilization, all of humanity needs to limit future
greenhouse pollution to less than 650 billion tons [PDF].
Far from “keeping the American Dream alive for generation after
generation,” as Donohue claims, his promotion of catastrophic global
warming would grant a diminished, deadly world to future generations.
Our nation is on the cusp of an energy boom that is already creating
hundreds of thousands of jobs, revitalizing entire communities, and
reinvigorating American manufacturing.
Unconventional oil and natural gas development is on pace to create
more than 300,000 jobs by 2015 in Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, and West
Virginia alone. Take a look at what’s happening in North Dakota. The
state is booming. Unemployment is at 3.4 percent. Oil production just surpassed
that of Ecuador—one of the members of OPEC.
Energy is a game changer for the United States. It is, as the saying
goes, “the next big thing.” With the right policies, the oil and natural
gas industry could create more than 1 million jobs by 2018. Not only
can we create jobs, but we can cut our dependence on overseas imports
while adding hundreds of billions of dollars to government coffers in
the coming years.
Recent discoveries have confirmed that this nation is truly blessed
with energy resources. We have 1.4 trillion barrels of oil, enough to
last at least 200 years. We have 2.7 quadrillion cubic feet of natural
gas, enough to last 120 years. We have 486 billion tons of coal, enough
to last more than 450 years—and we need to use more of this strategic
resource cleanly and wisely here at home while selling it around the
To tap our energy resources, we must speed up permitting and end many
of the restrictions that have put key areas off-limits. Instead of
handpicking a few technologies, we must harness all our resources,
traditional and alternative—while expanding nuclear power and driving
Our biggest and most reliable foreign energy supplier is Canada. The
proposed Keystone XL pipeline would bring Canadian oil sands down to our
Gulf Coast refineries and to other destinations along the way.
This project has passed every environmental test. There is no
legitimate reason—none at all—to subject it to further delay. Labor
the business community alike are urging President Obama to
act in the best interests of our national security and our workers and
approve the pipeline. We can put 20,000 Americans to work right away and
up to 250,000 over the life of the project.
Donohue also expressed disappointment with Republican attacks on Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, calling them “foolish” and “not
doing anything other than setting up the ad base for their opponents.”
Environmentalists and public health
advocates have a reason to stand up and cheer: Finalized rules to cut
down on mercury air pollution are set to be announced today by the EPA.
economists can also feel good about this holiday-season gift of clean air: Two
decades of agency analysis have found the EPA’s new mercury standards for power
plants to be overwhelmingly cost-benefit justified. With annual compliance costs around $11
billion, and health benefits estimated to be up to $140 billion per year, even the
most hard-nosed bean counter should be feeling festive.
that’s only part of the story. This
number doesn’t even fully capture the benefits of the rule, because EPA’s
economic analysis does not include many of the risks of mercury pollution.
EPA’s analysis of mercury reduction benefits is limited to quantifying lost
future earnings due to lower IQ. The
idea here is that mercury, a neurotoxin, can cause development problems for in utero fetuses. To account for the cost
of this risk, EPA places a price on wages lost because of lost IQ points.
any parent whose child has been exposed to mercury will care about more than
the loss of potential earnings—over a lifetime, contact with the pollutant can mean
more than smaller paychecks. There are also risks of cognitive and social
defects, negative autoimmune effects, genetic effects, and heart attacks that
are not quantified.
the narrow IQ-related effects EPA looks at are estimated only for a small group
of people—children born to families that catch freshwater fish for their own
consumption. Excluded are any of the
potential risks that come from eating commercially bought fish, which is the
vast majority of total consumption.
seem to like to pretend that these unquantified risks don’t exist at all. The
Wall Street Journal editorial page, in a broadside against the rule, quoted
EPA’s finding that “the benefits to society from the mercury reductions in the
utility rule max out at $6.1 million, total.” The paper failed to mention all
of the benefits that EPA recognized, but was unable to put a dollar figure on.
a handle on these risks is challenging.
Once mercury enters the ocean and contaminates fish (that will
eventually be eaten), it’s very difficult to trace back to the offending
plants. Using current analytical techniques, it is nearly impossible to tell
which mercury came from U.S. coal plants, versus Chinese coal plants, versus
other nations’ coal plants. Essentially, mercury becomes everybody’s fault and
nobody’s fault at the same time. But that difficulty doesn’t excuse U.S. coal
plants from their share of contributing to the problem.
without putting an exact figure on the mercury benefits, we know the rule is
richly cost-benefit justified because of all of the positive side effects that
we get from reduction in other pollutants, like particulate matter (a
particularly deadly air pollutant).
the economics, public health benefits, and environmental benefits align this nicely,
it takes a real Grinch to refuse to celebrate.
Last week, the U.S. Senate rejected an extreme agenda
disguised as a jobs and transportation bill. This unsuccessful effort
was founded on the absurd notion that more pollution would mean more
jobs, and that what the country really needs is more of the congressional
paralysis and obstructionism that already wearies and disgusts
This week, the Senate will vote again on repealing life-saving pollution standards—this time a Tea Party-backed attack on the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) that
keeps out-of-state smog and soot pollution from fouling the air of
neighboring communities. Once again, the dirty air champions are going
to talk about jobs, but the public already knows what the Senate
affirmed last week—dirty air and dirty water are not a jobs plan.
Last week’s failed legislation was Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (R-Utah) Long-Term Surface Extension Act of 2011 [PDF]—a witch’s brew of Tea Party House Republican bromides about job creation that in reality were just poisonous attempts to:
kill health safeguards against mercury and toxic pollution from cement plants, incinerators, and industrial boilers;
quietly pass Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) truly radical REINS Act [PDF], which would allow just one chamber of Congress to block law enforcement of existing statutory safeguards, from clean air and
clean water protections, to food safety standards, to Wall Street reform;
just as quietly pass the insidious Regulatory Time-Out Act of 2011,
which would indiscriminately and nonsensically block the most
significant health and environmental safeguards, financial
responsibility reforms, and the like for one year, notwithstanding how
much damage and destruction to the American people or economy would
result from blocking those safeguards.
This week, Paul plans more of the same, with a resolution
under the Congressional Review Act to void EPA’s CSAPR. These standards will clean up dangerous smog and soot
pollution from the oldest, dirtiest coal-burning power plants in the
eastern half of the United States, saving lives and creating jobs by
cleaning up pollution.
EPA has projected that these clean air standards will prevent every year [PDF]:
up to 34,000 premature deaths;
15,000 nonfatal heart attacks;
400,000 cases of asthma attacks; and
1.8 million days when people miss work or school.
Moreover, these health safeguards will deliver up to $280 billion in
annual benefits to the American people, compared to $2.4 billion in
compliance costs to polluting coal-burning power plants, yielding
benefits that outweigh costs by an astonishing 116 to 1. Many
politicians and industry lobbyists claim to support benefit-cost
analysis; how much would health benefits to Americans have to outweigh
polluter compliance costs before Paul and his resolution’s
co-sponsors would support clean air safeguards? 200 to 1? 500 to 1?
Further proof for this extreme agenda is shown by the zealous
irresponsibility of Paul’s chosen weapon, a Congressional Review
Act vote that repeals not only the CSAPR, but also prohibits EPA from adopting “substantially similar” health protections.
The Congressional Review Act is a nuclear bomb with radioactive
spillover consequences: It voids not just the targeted safeguards, like
CSAPR, but also prohibits EPA from adopting similar protections, such
as a substitute for the Bush administration’s 2005 Clean Air Interstate Rule. A federal court overturned [PDF] this rule in 2008. CSAPR responds to the court order to reduce
smog and soot pollution from power plants in a more protective manner
that complies with the Clean Air Act.
If a Congressional Review Act vote abolished CSAPR and blocked EPA
from reissuing a similar rule, this would make it extremely unlikely
that EPA could even reissue clean air standards achieving the same
emissions reductions as the weaker Clean Air Interstate Rule; the two
rules are substantially similar in numerous respects, including the
problems they target; the states, polluters, and pollutants covered; the
rules’ underlying modeling and rationale; the legal authority and
regulatory structure; etc. The result would be millions more tons of smog
and soot pollution from dirty power plants.
All of this explains why Paul’s extreme pollution agenda
already is attracting bipartisan opposition from more moderate and
responsible members, with five or more Republican senators expected to
oppose the CRA resolution.
The White House’s Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the president
for energy and climate change, has authored an eloquent and ringing endorsement of the cross-state rule. One hopes this important backing represents
the prelude to a White House statement of administration policy (SAP)
recommending a presidential veto of Paul’s resolution, adding to the
laudable record of SAPs opposing House dirty air attacks this year.
The greater question remains, however: When will congressional
obstructionists finally abandon their stalling and ideological
pollution plans in favor of getting down to the business of moving the
country forward to a healthy and clean energy future?
Paul Krugman’s column in The New York Times Thursday laments one of the many ironies of our time: Politicians
in Washington are finally talking about job creation, but Republicans
(and some Democrats, I’m sure) pin their hopes for employment on
environmental deregulation. As Krugman points out, “Serious economic analysis actually says that we need more protection, not less.”
By serious economic analysis, Krugman means peer-reviewed articles
published in academic journals over the last few decades that have
probed the relationship between environmental regulations, employment,
and economic growth. He doesn’t mean the American Petroleum Institute’s
latest report that purports to show job growth potential through … wait
for it … relaxing restrictions on oil and gas extraction. He means the
latest findings by Yale University economist William Nordhaus, published in the American Economic Review [PDF], the top-ranked journal in economics, that finds that the economic cost
of air pollution exceeds the value added of coal-fired electric
generation by a factor of nearly six to one. And this estimate doesn’t
include the economic damages from climate change. Pollution-related
costs impede productivity and growth in the U.S. economy. Imposing more
of these costs on society through deregulation is not only undesirable,
it is bad economic policy.
So let’s review what economists do know [PDF] about the relationship between environmental regulation and jobs. The
oft-cited concern is that environmental regulations will increase
production costs, raising product prices and decreasing the quantity of
goods and services demanded. The good news, however, is that empirical
evidence finds little support for wide-scale job losses or relocations
arising from strengthening of environmental policies in the U.S.
The economics research on this topic extends back over the last few
decades. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 marked the last
significant package of environmental regulation passed in the U.S., and
the creation of NAFTA in 1994 presented new opportunities for U.S. firms
to relocate abroad to avoid environmental regulations. Thus, there is extensive literature that covers a long time period that evaluates
how environmental regulations impact businesses, employment, and income.
The economics literature covering this history supports three
conclusions. The first conclusion is that businesses are unlikely to
relocate to avoid compliance with environmental regulations. The
empirical evidence shows that there has been little movement by U.S.
firms to other countries to escape environmental regulatory burdens. Nor
has there been a migration of new investment in dirty industries to
developing countries with lax regulations, the so-called “pollution
havens”. Over the last few decades of the neoliberal era, both dirty and
clean industries have relocated outside of the U.S., but that movement
has been driven mostly by the pursuit of lower wage and benefit costs
(especially health costs), which comprise a much higher percentage of
their total costs (Goodstein 1999; Gallagher 2006 [PDF]). What the research has found is that environmental compliance costs are generally below 2 percent of total business costs (Jaffe et al. 1995 [PDF]);
the potential savings are just not large enough to compel relocation to
escape environmental regulations alone. Economists searching for
evidence of widespread flight of polluting industries to different
countries or different states within the U.S. have yet to uncover
evidence of a trend. (This is not to say that firms that leave the U.S.
in pursuit of lower labor costs behave as good environmental citizens
The second major conclusion economists have drawn from studies
examining the impacts of regulations on businesses and competitiveness
at the national or regional level is that that plant closings and
layoffs as a result of environmental regulations are actually rare.
Numerous independent studies show this. Layoffs that can be attributed
to environmental regulations account for only one-tenth of 1 percent of all mass
layoffs (of over 50 employees) nationwide. This is equivalent to roughly
1,000 to 3,000 jobs per year across the entire country. For example, less
than 7,000 jobs were lost between 1990 and 1997 as a direct result of the
Clean Air Act Amendments. Over that same period, 10 million U.S. workers
were laid off for non-environmental reasons (Goodstein 1999).
Among the reasons for major layoffs, as reported by the Bureau of Labor
Statistics, environmental and safety-related shutdowns are among the
least common, accounting for about 0.1 percent of job losses (Goodstein 1999).
A study of the heavily regulated steel, petroleum, plastics, and pulp
and paper industries concluded that, “while environmental spending
clearly has consequences for business and labor, the hypothesis that
such spending significantly reduces employment in heavily polluting
industries is not supported by the data” (Morgenstern et al., 2002, p. 25).
The third major conclusion is that at the economy-wide level, there
seems to be no real trade-off between environmental regulation and
growth. Environmental regulation leads to a very slow shift in the
composition of spending: Jobs are gained as workers produce, install, and
maintain cleanup equipment and engage in retrofits, and are lost as
firms pass on those cost increases to consumers, who have to cut back
their purchase of goods and services from that sector. Environmental
regulation begins a slow shift away from the products of dirty industry.
An example would be the shift into new recycling jobs and out of waste
disposal jobs, as the percentage of waste recycled in the U.S. rose
significantly in the 1990s.
While job loss can be catastrophic to an individual worker, net job
loss (or gain) is the variable that should drive public policy. Small
job loss in a particular plant or industry because of a change in
regulatory environment is just noise against the backdrop of the
millions of employed and unemployed in the U.S. economy. And, the
handful of job losses has to be compared to the jobs gained elsewhere in
the economy as a result of the new regulations. For example, a recent report finds that coal ash regulations can create as many as 28,000 jobs.
As with all public policy, changes in environmental regulations
create winners and losers. Specific businesses or industries may be
disproportionately impacted (for example, the coal workers from national
carbon legislation). Labor market conditions in the U.S. will continue
to be more heavily influenced by larger structural changes in the U.S.
and global economy than any proposed regulatory changes. If we want to
get to the heart of the unemployment problem in the U.S., we need to
explore these structural issues. Exploiting the public’s deep need for
job creation to promote an anti-regulatory agenda is dishonest and