How Much Is Clean Air Worth? More than Polluters Claim

Over the past few decades, pseudo-science has become a key part of the polluter’s playbook. Big Tobacco had doctors who claimed smoking did not cause cancer. Coal companies trot out the few scientists left who say carbon pollution is not changing the Earth’s weather systems. 

Now, several industrial polluters have funded a research institute to produce economic reports about why environmental regulations do not produce value for Americans.

The National Economic Research Associates’ latest paper, “Assessment of the Obama Administration’s Cost-Benefit Analysis of Clean Air Act Regulations,” is the kind of dry, weighty paper most people would avoid like the plague. But it’s important we take note of this tome, because it is part of a broad, stealth attack on the protections and benefits of a decent, civilized society.

Fundamentally, the paper is part of a campaign by the factories, oil companies and others who do not like complying with environmental protections against pollution.

As my colleague Laurie Johnson noted on her blog, the National Economic Research Associates have been generating anti-regulatory studies for years. A good deal of their research has been funded by polluting industries.

In this most recent study, the authors claim that Americans do not put any value on things like having parks to walk in, breathing unpolluted air, drinking safe water, or avoiding getting sick. Of course, the paper doesn’t state it quite like that. What it says is academic-sounding, inside-baseball stuff. It claims that the Environmental Protection Agency got it all wrong in a recent analysis that found true value from less pollution. Why? Because, the authors say, you can’t put a dollar figure on the benefit of less pollution.

This assertion is not only wrong. It is Earth-is-flat fraudulent.

It ignores something that any Economics 101 student learns: people value a lot of things that you can’t put a dollar figure on. Something that economics calls “well-being.” In doing this, the paper helps give academic-sounding cover to those who want to tear down the safeguards that help keep Americans safe and healthy.

By challenging the way the American government calculates benefits to Americans– i.e. the work of scientists and experts whose duty is to keep Americans’ health and environment safe – the paper is actually serving the factories, oil companies and others who don’t like to be held accountable for the pollution they release into our air.

There are many other troubling issues in the paper. It ignores, for instance, the fact that the government’s calculations have been exhaustively reviewed, and approved of, by friends and skeptics alike. It also fails to account for the savings generated when people don’t have to be paid damages after getting sick from pollution. And it doesn’t come clean about the inconvenient truth that its authors have long been paid by industries that like to pollute .

But it’s the way the paper fits into the broader undermining of American values that’s most troubling.

It is, in fact, just one of many signs of the growing movement against government safeguards. That movement taps into the American spirit of the frontier and a yearning for independence. Those are admirable traits. But the movement itself also too often discounts the fact that a free, functioning society is a society where laws – and yes, government – protect basic privileges that we take for granted. That includes everything from roads that are safe to drive on, lakes that are clean enough to swim in, air that is healthy to breathe.

A paper like the one put out by National Economic Research Associates not only disregards the value of these government services. It also tries to give a veneer of credibility to those who would undermine so many things Americans cherish. It is time to pull back the curtain and reveal the polluter-funded pseudo-economists for what they really are: anti-regulatory advocates, not independent academics.