The President’s proposed 31 percent budget cut for the Environmental Protection Agency and the appointment of a prominent EPA critic as the agency’s head have raised fears that the nation’s air and water quality will be ignored. EPA critics say the agency needs cutting, as it’s been activist in pursuing “worthless” strategies to reduce unproven global warming. Experts on each side discus pro’s and con’s of EPA cuts.
- Collin O’Mara, President & CEO, National Wildlife Federation
- Diane Katz, Senior Research Fellow, Heritage Foundation
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Putting the Brakes on Environmental Regulation
Reed Pence: A couple of generations of Americans have grown up knowing only clean air and water, they’ve never heard of a river so polluted it could catch fire as the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland did in 1969. They weren’t around for killer smog, which at it’s worst killed 4000 people in just a few days in London in 1952. Today we can only make guesses at the benefits of how we’ve cleaned up our air and water and the tens of thousands of people each year who don’t die of heart attacks, or the millions who don’t suffer asthma attacks and more.
Collin O’Mara: There are numbers you can apply to the value of having a healthier child using mercury as an example as a neural toxin; it can fundamentally stunt somebodies cognitive development. It’s almost hard to put a number on that but the number of kids that are growing up less sick, having brains that are actually functioning better, that are doing a better job in school, grew up in a generation of having a more productive, more enjoyable life – it’s hard to put a value on that. It’s actually true, the science is clear, the economics is clear and I do think that we take things for granted and one of the challenges is that we’ve had it pretty good.
Pence: That’s Collin O’Mara, President & CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.
O’Mara: We don’t have folks generally dying from black lung disease that are working directly in mines. I mean we’ve actually made incredible progress, we do tend to underestimate the benefits from these things because when the average American turns on their tap they just expect the water to be coming – they don’t necessarily care about how it became clean, they don’t necessarily think about protection of the source water or the drinking water treatment plant, but that’s decades of work – that was not necessarily the case 40 years ago that the average tap have clean, healthy water in it. So we’ve made great progress and I think part of the challenge I think we face is making the case to folks that we can lose a lot of those protections if we’re not ever vigilant.
Pence: O’Mara says vigilance is especially called for today in the face of president Trump’s proposed 31% cut in the budge of the Environmental Protection Agency and the appointment of prominent EPA critic Scott Pruitt as it’s head. Environmentalists believe Pruitt’s goal will be to eviscerate the agency that he now leads and the protections it affords since he and other critics believe the EPA has been far too activist.
Diane Katz: Most Americans want a clean environment and they see an important role for the Federal government in protecting the environment, but the need of an overhaul of the EPA has never been greater.
Pence: Diane Katz is a Senior Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy at the Heritage Foundation.
Katz: Our environmental statutes are outdated and they don’t reflect current conditions. EPA officials routinely ignore regulatory costs, they exaggerate benefits, and they breach their statutory and in some cases constitutional boundaries. They are using massive amounts of tax dollars on useless schemes to avert global warming despite there being considerable certainty about global warming.
Pence: Claims like that infuriate environmentalists, they say that 97% of scientists agree that global warming is real and that human activity has made it worse. A new Yale University survey shows that 70% of Americans agree that global warming is happening and 53% think human activity causes most of it. O’Mara says everyone’s entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts.
O’Mara: If we can’t have basic fidelity to sound science, what Bill Reilly the EPA administrator of the first Bush administration called the secular religion of the EPA has to be sound science, has to be the basis of everything. If there isn’t a commitment to that, I don’t know how you make rational decisions because everything at that point is subjective. So I mean if we can’t agree that mercury is bad for kids, if we can’t agree that climate science is the global consensus at this point, if we can’t agree that air pollution from soot, or smog, or lead, or arsenic in the air is bad for health – I mean if we’re fighting over those kinds of questions we’re not gonna be making any progress.
Pence: But Katz discounts the science, the Heritage Foundation prescriptions for environmental regulation are reportedly influential at the White House.
Katz: Most of the science that’s not being done is in pursuit of a political agenda not a scientific one and therefore, I would like to see a lot of that taking offline. There’s no consensus that man-made omissions are contributing to changing the climate. There are periods of warming, but there’s always been a period of warming and cooling and whether or not we have any control over it is highly questionable at this point. What we do know though, is that there are threats to poverty and there are threats to public health threats that do need our attention but probably are getting less attention because of the amount of resources that are being thrown at climate change.
Pence: Critics also say environmental regulations are job killers, some say EPA may as well stand for “Employment Prevention Agency.”
Katz: Regulations don’t necessarily directly eliminate jobs, but what they do is prevent jobs from being created, so that’s one big cost. The other is that they shift resources that would otherwise be used for innovation and/or for growth, or for positive purposes, they shift all of those resources into complying with regulations that don’t have commensurate benefit.
Pence: O’Mara disagrees.
O’Mara: If you look at the total Impact – if you look at both the profitability as well as the health outcomes, if you look at what kind of society you want to live in – we can have both a strong economy and a health environment. Yes, the margins might be slightly smaller – the Clean Air Act amendment in 1990 is an example, the issues should address acid rain and some of the regional air pollution issues being the major focus and all the estimates were wrong about how much it was gonna cost, and how long it was gonna take to get to the health standards they were trying to achieve. And there’s all this fear at the time, “this is going to destroy industry, this is going to hurt so many sectors of the economy” and what they found in doing a retrospective, even just 5 years later, it took a quarter of the cost and half the time to achieve the outcomes that they wanted. The amount of American innovation that went into coming up with solutions as absolutely staggering and the GDP during that period took off.
Pence: He says there are also plenty of job created by enforcing clean air and water. Jobs that would be threatened by dismemberment of the EPA.
O’Mara: Some of these actions are actually hurting one of the fasted growing parts of the economy, which is the clean energy sector. Now you have several thousand jobs, tens of millions of dollars of investment and we saw just a burgeoning energy sector across solar, and wind, and cleaner forms of fossil, and into geothermal and we’ve seen these technologies. Prices come way down, investing goes way up, we have the first offshore wind farm actually operating right now in Rhode Island and so to walk back from that, it’s bad economics. You know, if they want to fight the good fight I’m happy to debate that also but the economics – it just doesn’t make sense. And at a time when we’re talking about trying to bring – have more American innovation, more manufacturing, and more construction jobs – clean energy is a home run on all those fronts. And I think the question for the administration and for the country is do we want to the global leader in this multi-trillion dollar global industry or do we want China to have those innovations and manufacturing jobs, and buy goods from them for the next century?
Pence: Deregulators envision giving states more responsibility for environmental laws – after all, they say, states are closer to the sources of pollution. But O’Mara, a former Delaware state environmental official says, leaving states in charge will leave some problems unsolved.
O’Mara: More than 90% of the air pollution that some breath in Delaware, comes from out of state sources. So, Delaware could shut down every single power plant in the state, every single factory in the states, take every single car off the road, and the air will still not meet healthy standards on some of the dirtier airways because the pollution is coming from the west from the couple power plants in Maryland or even going further into Pennsylvania and into Ohio as pollution kind of comes across through the winds. Now a lot of the lines are being dumped in Delaware the kind of the tailpipe of the country.
Pence: O’Mara also worries that if it’s up to them, states will start competing for industry by loosening environmental standards while the feds wash their hands of it.
O’Mara: The challenge is that if you don’t have a floor, if you don’t have some basic standards by the federal government, you do wind up with a race to the bottom. And this isn’t theory, this where we were in the 1960’s and the pre-EPA era, where you had the waterways on fire, you had smog over major cities because the individual states as much as they want to reduce pollution in their territory, if there’s political pushback because there’s a fear of having economic incentive for investing in your state, if there’s some place that you can pollute more and go about you work without any kind of oversight you wind up with this kind of horrible race to the bottom where states actually disincentive from cleaning up their own pollution out of fear of jobs. It also sets up this really weird dynamic where, folks aren’t realizing both the benefits simultaneously of a better economy and healthier environment.
Katz: Given how the public regards the importance of environmental improvement and conservation, it would be pretty stupid of state officials to cross voters in their state on environmental matters. In terms of devolving environmental protection to states, I don’t think that everything should go to states but I do think that there are areas in which states are particularly better positioned because they know local conditions much better than the federal government. And because they’re more accountable to people, they’ll do a better job of conservation.
Pence: Today, Katz says, environment is much cleaner than it was 50 years ago when pollution laws were first written. So it makes no sense to go about protecting it the same way, she says looking for ways other than regulation doesn’t mean abandoning protection – on that, O’Mara agrees.
Katz: I’m not gonna say that federal regulation did not produce environmental improvements, it certainly produced environmental improvements, but was it the only way to improve the environment? I don’t think so. Long before the Clean Air Act was enacted, air emissions were being reduced by advances in technology and we know across the board technology improves environmental conditions because technology is really about improving efficiency and when you have greater efficiency, you have less waste and pollution is just waste.
O’Mara: I think there is a legitimate conversation about how to have regulations that are smarter and having regulation be the last resort, not the first resort, having regulations that are more performance based and lets folks figure out the best way and most cost effective and most economically efficient way to do things, rather than having government prescribe how to do that. We did a lot of that in Delaware, you see a lot of that in different parts of the country, let innovators be innovative and let’s hold them accountable with standards. Frankly, I don’t care how they reduce mercury by 80% I just want them to achieve the outcome, if they have a better/cheaper/faster way to do it, they should have the flexibility to do that. But I think if we want to live in a civilized society that has good public health, good and healthy natural resources, and a strong economy, there has to be some semblance of balance.
Pence: However, O’Mara fears that with thousands of EPA staffers eliminated, no one will be left to make sure polluters don’t run amok. Perhaps surprisingly he says even congressmen who you’d expect be budget hawks are saying, “wait a minute.”
O’Mara: I’m hearing from a lot of my Republican friends on the hill, they have deep concerns about the depth of cuts cuz in their states they might have concerns about individual regulations, but they don’t want to lose the assistance for the cleanup or the superfund sites or the brownfield sites in the state. They don’t want to lose the assistance that’s being provided across these regional issues and they wanna make sure they still have good water quality for fly fishing or for local communities that want to make sure that air pollution is coming across states and so I think there’s a little cognitive dissonance which mean the rhetoric and the reality as they’re actually looking at some of these cuts. This is one of those times where I’m hoping that some folks can stand up and say, “look, we’re gonna take a scalpel to some things and we want more focus on these issues that are bigger priorities now than they were 10 years ago and we’re gonna downsize some other things.” But this sort of “one size fits all” approach is crazy right now, I’m hearing from some of the most conservative senators in the body saying that its just too deep, too fast and we really need to take a look at what the actual consequences are.
Pence: Consequences are really the important thing, science and not either side’s ideological agenda should guide us because the environment, our kids, and perhaps our ultimate survival are too important to get wrong. You can find out more about all of our guests on our website, RadioHealthJournal.net. I’m Reed Pence.