Keeping Our Air Clean Puts Americans to Work

On Tuesday I have the honor of speaking at the plenary session of the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference in Washington. The conference is hosted by the Blue Green Alliance, a partnership of labor unions and environmental groups is 14.5 million members strong.

The gathering will focus on putting Americans to work making our air cleaner, our energy more sustainable, and our economy more prosperous.

The timing for this conference couldn’t be more urgent. Not only are Americans still facing staggering unemployment rates, but some lawmakers are trying to remove the safeguards that would generate more clean energy jobs and improve the health of American families.

Last week, Representative Fred Upton and others proposed bills to rollback the Clean Air Act protections to reduce carbon dioxide pollution. Groups ranging from the American Lung Association to the American Public Health Association have decried the harm this rollback would do to people’s health.

But people concerned about American jobs are also opposed to these efforts. In the State of the Union, President Obama talked about “winning the future” through innovation: Clean energy was his central example. Clean energy will help our economy grow at a time when oil resources are tight but solar power is endless. It will help America compete in a global marketplace that rewards advanced technologies, not fossil fuel systems from the 19th century.

Undermining the primary tool we have for promoting clean energy solutions would thwart this growth. But there is another principle at stake here as well.

Representative Upton and his allies claim that regulations hurt workers. This sweeping anti-government stance ignores the fact that if we had better protections in place, 11 men would not have died on the Deepwater Horizon Rig and thousands of Gulf fishermen would not have been put out of work.  Nor would 29 miners died at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia.

Smart regulations can not only keep workers safe, but they can also spur innovation and growth. Making our air cleaner, for instance, has created opportunities for American workers and businesses. That is why labor groups and environmental groups have worked side by side to protect the integrity of the Clean Air Act.

Back in 1977, NRDC joined forces with the United Steelworkers to successfully pass amendments that strengthened the law. We worked together again in 1990, when we helped persuade Congress to include the acid rain program in the Clean Air Act. And just two years ago, the UAW backed the clean car standards that the Obama administration issued using Clean Air Act authority.

Why did unions join this fight? Because the Clean Air Act creates incentives to constantly improve the technologies that keep us safer. And that innovation creates jobs. New smokestack scrubbers, new catalytic converters, new particulate filters on diesel engines—all these things have to be designed and installed by workers.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the total number of jobs linked to the environmental technology industry grew from 1.3 million in 1977 to 3.2 million in 2002. U.S. companies, meanwhile, exported the technologies they invented for a total of $30 billion by 2004.

Meanwhile, thanks to all these new pollution controls, the Clean Air Act saved hundreds of thousands of lives. The acid rain program, which reduces pollutants that cause significant health impacts, prevents nearly 20,000 premature deaths EVERY YEAR.

Back when the Clean Air Act was first being debated on the House floor, one Congressman quoted a small town mayor saying, “If you want this town to grow, it has got to stink.”

That mayor was wrong. Our economy did not shrivel when the Clean Air Act was passed; instead, our GDP has grown by 207 percent. We can have economic growth without stinking up our communities. We can generate jobs without making workers breathe in air that causes cancer, asthma, and cardiac disease.