Since taking office, President Donald Trump and his Environmental Protection Agency chief, Scott Pruitt, have been busy waging a “breathtaking” (literally) war on environmental regulations.
Here are just a few of the highlights: America’s U.N. climate commitment — broken. EPA budget — butchered. Ozone standard — delayed. Protection of waterways — ditched. Brain-toxic pesticides — more of them. Leak-prone pipelines — approved. Preventing chemical accident disasters — why bother? Clean Power Plan — scrapped. Mercury pollution — no big deal. Fuel-efficient cars — who needs them? Asbestos — why not?
Some words are always used in pairs: Barbie and Ken, bacon and eggs, death and taxes. Ever since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have been trying to always pair “job-killing” with “regulation,” as if you can’t have one without the other. To be sure, regulations protecting our air and water can reduce jobs in a few industries. But from a broader perspective, the idea that regulations are largely gloom-and-doom “job killers” is a manufactured myth. Numerous studies show that regulations don’t cause job losses in the overall economy at all.
Most federal regulations will affect an entire industry, usually not one company in that industry more than another. So while that industry may be forced to install pollution-control devices, and those costs usually are passed on to consumers, the competition dynamic hasn’t really changed because all companies will make similar expenditures. A 30-year study of petroleum, plastics, iron and steel, pulp and paper industries showed that regulations actually lead to industrywide net job increases, not significant job losses.
Regulations often precipitate innovation and entirely new industries and products, such as catalytic converters, adding thousands of new jobs in addition to cleaning up the air.
Another study in 2013 examined employment in businesses affected by the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. Those amendments triggered $5.4 billion in lost or reduced earnings. But that’s only half the equation. The EPA and others calculated that the cumulative health and economic benefits from 1990 to 2020 will include the sparing of 4.2 million lives, 43.8 million asthma attacks, 3.3 million heart attacks, 2.1 million hospital admissions, 2.2 million emergency room visits and 313 million lost work days. The economic benefits exceed the compliance costs by a ratio of 30 to 1. How many things can you think of that can produce a return on investment of 30 to 1? Other clean air and water regulations usually show benefit ratios of anywhere from 3 to 1 to 40 to 1.
It's impossible to economically quantify what we’ve learned in the last few years about how even short-term pollution during pregnancy can affect fetal development, damage chromosomes, shorten life expectancy and increase lifelong vulnerability to numerous serious diseases. So these numbers are likely just the tip of the iceberg.
The current president and EPA chief are very public about their love affair with fossil fuels. Meanwhile, they aren’t having much of a love affair with facts. Pruitt proudly proclaimed that since Trump took office, the coal industry has added 50,000 new jobs. But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates now there are only 51,000 jobs in the coal mining industry. Now add to that studies finding that pollution from coal power plants kills 52,000 people a year in the U.S. Even taking Pruitt's word for it, for every new job in the coal industry, someone else's life will be sacrificed.
When we finally regulated lead out of gasoline, there were job losses in the lead industry. Should we resume adding one of the most potent neurotoxins to our gasoline and paint just to revive employment in that industry? If jobs are our only objective, it makes as much sense to resuscitate the tobacco industry and try to get everyone hooked on cigarettes again.
Air pollution continues to rank in the top three concerns of Utah residents, usually at No. 1. In Utah our air pollution is an obvious public health liability, but it is also an obvious economic liability. No one likes to bring in business clients or lure potential employers here during inversion season. “Deregulation” is a euphemism for more pollution in our air and water, and that is hardly the key to making the Wasatch Front “great again.”
Dr. Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists.