The Utah economy has taken a beating. Today there are "signs of signs" that the economy may be recovering, although it's a slow and arduous progress. The Utah economy continues to contract at a 2.3 percent annual rate. Approximately 27,700 jobs have been removed from the Utah economy in the past year, and the official state forecast calls for a 1.5 percent contraction in the current year.
Unemployment remains high at 7.1 percent, which means that approximately 80,000 to 90,000 Utah families have felt the sting of unemployment and suffered significant financial stress. The breadth of the downturn is indicated by the economy's performance by industry and geography. Nine of Utah's 11 major industries continue to shed jobs, and 24 of Utah's 29 counties continue to lose jobs.
While there is broad consensus among economists that the worst is over, Utah's economy remains extremely vulnerable. We must be careful not to support public policies that will impair the expansion. Unfortunately the Environmental Protection Agency is launching what will prove to be an unprecedented assault on the economic wellbeing of our state and nation.
Late last year, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson declared that the EPA now considers greenhouse gases — natural, harmless substances like the carbon dioxide we exhale — as a danger to public health. This was the first in a series of steps to allow the EPA to begin regulating carbon — a natural byproduct of every human, or animal, behavior — as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.
The problem? Treating carbon dioxide like a chemical toxin is a disastrous, job-killing idea.
The Clean Air Act was designed to rid our environment of pollution: smog, smokestack emissions, chemicals that fouled the air we breathe and the water we drink. Those laws are not perfect but have accomplished many of the EPA's goals on that score. But greenhouse gases are different. They are not poisonous or even harmful. They make a poor target for the EPA.
Any link between carbon and climate change is enormously complex, which is why Congress has literally spent decades trying to figure out what to do about it. It has held dozens and dozens of hearings, studied the issues, and written and rewritten countless legislative proposals, trying to strike the right balance between environmental protection and economic progress.
The EPA's move last year short-circuited this democratic process. No hearings, no votes, no public debate: just one decision by one agency.
And what is the impact of that decision? It impairs our economic recovery. By regulating carbon dioxide as a toxin, the EPA would have to treat large, stationary producers — like factories, farms, construction sites and even universities — as threats to public health. Businesses — even small businesses that have almost no environmental impact at all — would have to apply to state regulators for permits to conduct their operations. State regulators, in turn, would be buried under an avalanche of new applications. While businesses wait for approval, they will cease to operate, or they may be pursued as violators.
The level of regulation the EPA imagines will sharply, immediately and permanently increase the price of energy, especially of carbon-burning energy sources. Compounding the problem of energy costs is yet another new tax on energy companies proposed in President Barack Obama's new budget. Making energy more expensive will make it harder for businesses to grow, invest and hire. How does the EPA explain this to the millions of unemployed American workers and struggling families? How do our representatives in Washington explain it to Utah families?
There is a better way. Congress should weigh in directly and manage this problem. This was the intent of the Clean Air Act. Congress should not leave such critical and far-reaching economic decisions to the bureaucrats of a federal agency.
The state of Utah has joined a suit to halt the overreaching of the EPA, but Congress must step in. We encourage our delegation to vigorously support efforts in Washington for congressional action to protect our economy from misguided policies.
Lane Beattie is the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber.