Moving Toward Better Environmental Policies

The Environmental Protection Agency is poised to begin establishing greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution standards for factories and power plants in 2011 as mandated by the landmark Clean Air Act of 2011 and the Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency in 2007. However, concerns have arisen over the consequences of a showdown between the Obama administration and a new Republican majority in the House of Representatives over the EPA’s new responsibilities. Will the Clean Air Act of 2011 and its empowerment of the EPA achieve its intended aim of reducing greenhouse gases?

The answer is yes, but not without significant litigation, lobbying and politically charged bickering.

The battle lines have been drawn, but it seems that advocates of the legislation are still substantially more powerless than the statute’s financially formidable opponents. These opponents include a pro-business Republican House and influential industry groups representing companies that will bear the financial brunt of decreasing greenhouse gases. Should they push too forcefully to constrict the work of the EPA, they risk facing a public outcry.

Given the recent extensive media coverage over the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Americans are understandably less sympathetic toward companies perceived as profit-driven with no concern over creating negative externalities. Such public sentiment may contribute to the inertia of current events, sobering radical efforts to stem requirements deemed excessive by conservatives.

The history of the Clean Air Act also suggests that even with considerable Republican representation in Congress, such legislation can find open ears across the political spectrum. After the Clean Air Act’s inception in 1963, the next major set of revisions to the act occurred in 1990. The 1990 revisions to the act received significant bipartisan support in a Senate vote of 89-11 with 45 Republican senators, and a House vote of 402-21 with 175 Republicans. The small number of dissenters exhibits the past willingness of Republican congressmen to reform business practices in favor of pursuing responsible economic policy.

Aside from the BP oil spill, public opinion has also been swayed by consistent media attention to the global warming phenomenon and by a consequent strengthening consciousness of global responsibility. At the same time, forceful and unilateral action by the EPA with support from certain states, a Supreme Court ruling and the Obama administration will still jeopardize its viability. As one senior administration official said, “If the administration gets it wrong, we’re looking at years of litigation, legislation and public and business outcry. If we get it right, we’re facing the same thing.”

The spirit of the statement is that no matter what the Obama administration does, there will always be a segment of the American people that will disagree with the results.

But the EPA will still ultimately succeed in setting emissions standards. After a 2007 showing of judicial support, legislation previously passed by Congress with overwhelming bipartisan margins and the support of a majority of Americans, the movement may be slowed but has too much momentum to be stopped.
Aside from a feasibility analysis of the new statute, I would also like to discuss worthwhile long-term motivations for the act: namely, technology and long-term global competitiveness. Many outspoken critics claim that the EPA will stifle American competition in the global marketplace by placing increased financial burdens on American firms. Reducing emissions to meet the new EPA standards will often require large investments in technology, as well as investments in upgrades to existing factories and power plants. The additional expenses to produce the same quality and quantity of goods will translate to increased costs of goods sold and decreased profit margins. This will force some firms to pass a portion of the burden of these costs to their consumers, which translates into higher prices for their products. The logic is sound, but it is shortsighted.
While it can be argued that short-run costs will hamper economic growth during a time when it is most needed, the long-run benefits of more stringent EPA standards will help set the tone for American dominance in the future. American firms will find a way to adapt and learn to be more competitive by way of streamlined production processes and more efficient utilization of labor. Some companies seeking to meet the new standards will find upgrades to existing infrastructure necessary. Increased standards for global warming to cut down global emissions will be a way of the future, and it would be wise to embrace that inconvenient truth sooner than later.

The global consensus by a respected international science community is that toxic emissions are real and will have real repercussions on our planet. By becoming more efficient now and producing more economic value per unit of emissions, America will have fewer growing pains in the future and will eventually benefit from a responsible shunning of environmental procrastination.

Those complaining the most are politicians who are honoring pledges to powerful industrial campaign donors, local economies that rely on the affected companies for jobs and influential industry groups. Since U.S. delegates are elected to represent the interests of their respective constituents, it makes sense that some politicians will ignore the shared threat the world faces with global warming in favor of making choices that are popular at home.

Hopefully, in the months ahead, legislators will realize that their decisions impact not only their home constituencies, but also America as a whole and the rest of the world, and act accordingly.

Andrew Wong is a fifth-year business economics and international studies double major. He can be reached at andrewcw@uci.edu.