GOP Repackages Old Attacks on Environmental Safeguards and Calls It a Jobs Plan

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s memo outlining the GOP jobs plan was certainly timely. Our economy is facing towering challenges that call for bold, constructive ideas. Too bad Cantor’s proposed solutions are nothing more than a repackaged anti-government screed that seeks to help the pollution industry by repealing environmental and public health standards.

In the midst of a recession spurred by rampant trading in unregulated mortgage debt, Cantor repeats the canards that clean air safeguards are the “job-destroying” villains. At a time when corporations have amassed what the Wall Street Journal called “record cash piles”— nearly $2 trillion—he says updating pollution controls at factories would require burdensome capital costs.

Both Cantor’s analysis and his remedy ring false. Worse, if adopted his plan would do real harm to real Americans. It could kill.

By blocking the Environmental Protection Agency from updating national smog standards, more than 4,000 Americans could die annually and more than 2,000 could suffer heart attacks each year. In the absence of mercury standards the plan would eliminate, 17,000 Americans would die prematurely, 11,000 people would have heart attacks, and 120,000 children would experience asthma attacks every year.

These aren’t theoretical injuries or ideological blows. These are people’s lives turned upside down.

The safeguards Cantor would get rid of reduce the times workers call in sick and the amount of medical bills we pay. They make the difference between taking our children to school and rushing them to the emergency room. They prevent our cities from being shrouded in smog, and they keep polluters from calling all the shots.

Americans value these benefits, and they count on the Environmental Protection Agency to preserve them. A June poll conducted for the American Lung Association found that 75 percent of voters support the EPA's effort to set stronger smog limits and 66 percent believe that EPA scientists—not politicians—should establish clean air standards.

Most Americans recognize that we can protect our health and grow the economy at the same time. After all, polluters aren’t burning the money it costs to comply with regulations. They use it to pay for goods and services that create jobs.

According to a study done by the Institute of Clean Air Companies, implementing just one set of standards—CAIR Phase I—since 2003 has created an estimated 200,000 jobs in the air pollution control industry. The number of Americans working as boilermakers grew by 35 percent between 1999 and 2001 because of updates in Clean Air Act standards. Taken together, the environmental technology sector has generated more than 1.7 million American jobs as of 2008.

And those are just some of the economic rewards of cleaning up pollution. Clean Air Act standards generated approximately $1.3 trillion in public health and environmental benefits in 2010 alone for a cost of $50 billion. The ratio of benefits to costs is more than 26 to 1.

No real plan for growing America’s economy would take these tools off the table.

But Cantor’s plan represents an extremist view of environmental regulations. It would have us believe that the Obama Administration is creating an entirely new body of regulations. The truth is these safeguards didn’t start with Obama.

They began with President Nixon, when he signed the Clean Air Act in 1970. They were strengthened by President H.W. Bush, after the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 were passed by 89 senators and 410 representatives. These laws enable the EPA to establish new limits on pollution whenever science reveals they are necessary. The Obama EPA is simply carrying on a proud tradition that Republican and Democratic leaders set in motion decades ago.

Most industries know how to operate within this tradition.  Last December, seven CEOs of leading utilities, including PG&E, Exelon, and Constellation, wrote a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal called “We’re Okay with the EPA’s New Air-Quality Regulations.” The authors wrote:

The electric sector has known that these rules were coming. Many companies, including ours, have already invested in modern air-pollution control technologies and cleaner and more efficient power plants…Contrary to the claims that the EPA’s agenda will have negative economic consequences, our companies’ experience complying with air quality regulations demonstrates that regulations can yield important economic benefits, including job creation, while maintaining reliability.

Several of the nation’s largest power companies are ready to comply with these important new clean air safeguards. In 2010, the top 10 utilities had a combined $28.4 billion in profits and $7.5 billion in cash balances. They can afford to protect their customers’ health and generate jobs at the same time.

A plan for creating jobs should take our country forward, not back into dirtier, more polluted days. American industries are ready to embrace the next wave of pollution control technologies, and Americans workers are ready to install them. We should keep this progress moving ahead at the same time we build new opportunities for workers across all sectors of the economy.