The US Business of Pollution

From the PEF’s mailbag, here is a guest post by Nick Scott, a recent college graduate and aspiring writer with a passion for environmental conservation. He currently resides in the southeastern United States.

The United States and the Business of Pollution

In light of the recent environmental tragedy in Japan, there has been a growing awareness of the potential threat environmental toxins and pollution can pose to public health. Allowing toxic materials to enter our water and air supplies can cause devastation to families and communities who are unprotected. Because the damages can be so severe, the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been tasked with the duty of protecting their nation’s public health from these potential threats. Unfortunately, such a job can be quite difficult when some of the world’s leading polluters are backed by corporate lobbyists who possess copious amounts of funding. And with a waning US economy, many manufacturing companies are desperate to bypass environmental regulations that are stifling their business. But is the additional revenue worth the potential environmental destruction? It becomes easy to see the moral dilemma.

Very recently, the EPA proposed their very first mercury standards for power plants that burn coal. According to the EPA’s newest proposal, the standards would work towards preventing 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks. Additionally, the global reduction of mercury emissions would contribute to preventing 120,000 cases of childhood asthma. Asthma currently stands as one of the leading causes for school absenteeism in the United States. In 2003, an estimated 12.8 million school days were missed due to the condition. Furthermore, the rare disease mesothelioma is regularly misdiagnosed as asthma (because the two have similar symptoms). Because the mesothelioma life expectancy is so short (lasting no longer than 14 months) this can prove to be devastating for a number of families.

While the EPA’s proposed mercury regulations may seem like a great idea, there is another side of the issue that must be examined. The ban on mercury rules has been facing some serious opposition by industry groups and conservative lawmakers. It is believed that the said emission regulations would shut down up to twenty percent of America’s coal-fired power capacity. Senator James M. Inhofe from Oklahoma commented on the matter, stating: “When you add in all of the rules and regulations from EPA’s cap-and-trade agenda, the outlook for jobs and economic growth looks dire.” With sky-rocketing gas prices and unprecedented unemployment levels, many conservatives are sharing similar sentiments. Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, has deemed the proposal as one of the most expensive rules in the history of the EPA.

The Washington Post reports: “Segal cited an IHS/Global Insight report estimating that every $1 billion spent to comply with pollution standards will put 16,000 jobs at risk and reduce the nation’s gross domestic product by up to $1.2 billion.”

Lisa Jackson, the EPA administrator, has admitted herself that the proposed regulations would end up running the power industry an enormous $10 billion by 2015. In addition to the giant down payment, she has also stated that consumers’ electric bills would see a bump in price by $3 to $4 dollars a month. On the other hand, however, she added that the health and environmental improvements would save over $100 billion annually. According to a report that was released by the EPA in March 2011, the direct benefits from similar regulations (The Clean Air Act) are estimated to reach almost $2 trillion for the year 2020, a figure that dwarfs the direct costs of implementation ($65 billion).

It’s hard to know what exactly to believe. However, despite all the statistics and counterpoints, one fact remains true: pollution and environmental toxins are a health threat. I believe that many would be interested in sacrificing a couple dollars per month in order to promote health benefits across the nation. Polluting for the sake of money just doesn’t seem right.

One comment

  • What about the benefits of the new jobs in retrofitting power plants (which is where that $10B will go), of new jobs in companies building retrofit equipment, cleaner generating capacity and energy efficient products to meet growing consumer demand once the cost of energy goes up $4 per month? Are they factored into the IHS/Global Insight report? How do they bound these studies?

    Without knowing, it’s hard to worry much about the costs of the mercury regulation to the GDP. I suspect that things are often bounded to make the status quo look best, but don’t know enough. Anyone economic interested in commenting on this?

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