Clean Air Regulations Generate Jobs, Economic Value, and Better Health

For months, the GOP leadership has been attacking the public health and environmental safeguards that protect Americans from pollution. Lately they have repackaged their assault on the environment and called it a jobs plan.

Call it what you will, it still means the same thing: dirtier air and no jobs for the American people and a free pass for polluters.

Our economy desperately needs a jumpstart, but you don’t get more jobs by making it easier to pollute. You get more asthma attacks, more sick days, and more premature deaths.

The way to create jobs in America is to invest in innovation. More than 150,000 Americans are currently employed manufacturing hybrids, electric cars, and other clean vehicles—models that weren’t even available 10 years ago. The wind industry employs 75,000, and the entire clean energy sector grew nearly twice as fast as the overall economy between 2003 and 2010.

That is a path toward a more prosperous future. Meanwhile, making it easier for polluters to dump their garbage into our lungs only takes us backwards.

I remember what it was like to see a blanket of smog hanging over Los Angeles. On one business trip, I landed in LA on Monday, but it wasn’t until Friday that I caught a glimpse of the San Gabriel Mountains—the air was so polluted they had been hidden for an entire week.

But the lack of a view was the least of it. Back in the 1970s, the air in Los Angeles hit unhealthy levels of pollution more than 200 days a year. By 2004, that number had dropped to 28—because of Clean Air Act standards. Over roughly that same time span, America’s GDP rose by more than 200 percent.

American workers don’t gain by interrupting this progress. Thousands of Americans still die every year as a result of air pollution. Thousands more will suffer now that President Obama has delayed issuing a stronger standard of smog, and many thousands more will suffer if the GOP succeeds in stripping away more protections.

Now is the time President Obama to defend the rules that make the air safe for our families. Ordinary citizens can’t do that alone. It’s extremely difficult for an individual to demand that a major polluter clean up its act. We need good rules on the books, and we need the government to enforce them.

Making polluters follow the same rules we do—nobody I know gets to spread their garbage around the neighborhood—has been proven to generate jobs and economic value.

Making the Air Safe to Breathe Never Costs as Much as Polluters Claims

We’ve heard all the polluters’ claims before. When the EPA called for phasing out the substances that created the ozone hole, chemicals companies and the refrigeration industry said it would cause severe economic and social disruption, with mass shutdowns of hospitals, office buildings, and supermarkets. Instead, companies were able to comply with the rules for 30 percent less than expected and six years faster than expected. Crisis averted.

When President H. W. Bush and Congress created a program to reduce acid rain, some utilities said it would be a “tragic mistake” that would drive up electricity rates. Instead, according to an MIT study, the true cost for implementing the program was about 80 percent lower than predicted. Electricity prices actually declined in the decade following the start of the program by about 18 percent.

The same pattern happens over and over again. The projected costs of following pollution standards often turn out to be gross exaggerations, both because the estimates are based on information from industry and because innovation ends up reducing prices.

Making our air and water cleaner is a fraction of manufacturers’ overall costs. The U.S. Census Bureau conducted an annual survey of the U.S. manufacturing sector and found that the cost of reducing all forms of pollution were on average only 0.4 percent of manufacturing costs. Even the most heavily regulated industries typically devote only about 1 percent of their revenue to pollution control.

Cleaning the Environment Creates Jobs

According to a new Brookings Institution study, more than 2.7 million Americans work in the clean economy. This includes people who install smokestack scrubbers, operate sewage treatment plants, and design the next-generation solar panels.

The clean technology piece of this economy has enjoyed explosive growth. Developing and manufacturing air pollution controls equipment alone generated more than $18 billion in revenue in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The department also found that U.S. exports of environmental technology have grown from less than $10 billion in 1990 to about $44 billion in 2008.

The Benefits of Clean Air Are Valued in Billions of Dollars

Even as it generates revenue and produces jobs, cleaning our environmental also creates additional economic value. Clean Air Act standards alone generated approximately $1.3 trillion in public health and environmental benefits in 2010 alone for a cost of $50 billion, according to the EPA. That’s a value worth more than 9 percent of GDP for a cost of only .4 percent of GDP. The ratio of benefits to costs is more than 26 to 1.

Those are just the most easily quantifiable benefits. It’s harder to measure the numbers of days in which people felt better and worked harder because they didn’t have respiratory trouble. It’s harder to count the times children played outside because they could breathe easier. It’s almost impossible to assign value to the extra time we have with parents whose lives were extended by cleaner air.

Worker productivity, unfettered recreation, time with family—these things are counted as zero in accountants’ books, but Americans value them, and we value the safeguards that deliver them.

That’s what we need President Obama to stand up for.