EPA at 40: Director Jackson claims too much?


EPA turned 40 on December 2.* EPA Director Lisa Jackson somehow wangled a few inches from the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page to extol the virtues of the agency.

She’s come under fire from some quarters, including especially the Home for Unwed Crabs,  for overstating the case.  Did she?

EPA Director Lisa P. Jackson

EPA Director Lisa P. Jackson

Or is this one more case of using environmentalists as scapegoats by the hard right, and other know-nothings and know-not-enoughs?

Jackson’s piece makes mild defense of a great idea in government, I think.  To me, the critics appear hysterical in comparison.

In tracking this down, I discovered that Matt Ridley had been given some really bum information about Rachel Carson, DDT and malaria, which appears in his new book, The Rational Optimist. To his credit, Ridley made a quick correction of the grossest distortions.  He defends the premises, still, however, which I find troubling. There may be subject for a later comment.

Disinformation is insidious.  Claims against the accuracy and reputation of Rachel Carson follow the stories of Millard Fillmore’s bathtub, but with darker, malignant intent.

Seriously:  What does Lisa Jackson overstate here?

The EPA Turns 40

‘Job-killing’ environmental standards help employ more than 1.5 million people.

Forty years ago today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency opened its doors, beginning a history of improvements to our health and environment. We reach this milestone exactly one month after the midterm elections strengthened the influence of groups and individuals who threaten to roll back the EPA’s efforts.

Last month’s elections were not a vote for dirtier air or more pollution in our water. No one was sent to Congress with a mandate to increase health threats to our children or return us to the era before the EPA’s existence when, for example, nearly every meal in America contained elements of pesticides linked to nerve damage, cancer and sometimes death. In Los Angeles, smog-thick air was a daily fact of life, while in New York 21,000 tons of toxic waste awaited discovery beneath the small community of Love Canal. Six months before the EPA’s creation, flames erupted from pollution coating the surface of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, nearly reaching high enough to destroy two rail bridges.

These are issues that are above politics. The last 40 years have seen hard-won advances supported by both sides of the aisle, and today the EPA plays an essential role in our everyday lives. When you turn on the shower or make a cup of coffee, the water you use is protected from industrial pollution and untreated sewage. In fact, drinking water in Cleveland was recently shown to be cleaner than a premium brand of bottled water. You can drive your car or catch a bus without breathing dangerous lead pollution. At lunch, would you prefer your food with more, or less, protection from pesticides?

The most common arguments against these protections are economic, especially as we continue to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Fortunately, the last 40 years show no evidence that environmental protection hinders economic growth. Neither the recent crisis nor any other period of economic turmoil was caused by environmental protection. In fact, a clean environment strengthens our economy.

Special interests have spent millions of dollars making the case that we must choose the economy or the environment, attacking everything from removing lead in gasoline to cleaning up acid rain. They have consistently exaggerated the cost and scope of EPA actions, and in 40 years their predictions have not come true.

We have seen GDP grow by 207% since 1970, and America remains the proud home of storied companies that continue to create opportunities. Instead of cutting productivity, we’ve cut pollution while the number of American cars, buildings and power plants has increased. Alleged “job-killing” regulations have, according to the Commerce Department, sparked a homegrown environmental protection industry that employs more than 1.5 million Americans.

Even in these challenging times, the EPA has been part of the solution, using Recovery Act investments in water infrastructure, clean-diesel innovation and other projects to create jobs and prepare communities for more growth in the years ahead.

The EPA’s efforts thrive on American ingenuity and entrepreneurship. Holding polluters accountable sparks innovations like the Engelhard Corporation’s catalytic converter, which pioneered the reduction of toxic emissions from internal combustion engines, and DuPont’s replacements for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which protected the ozone layer while turning a profit for the company. One executive told me that the EPA’s recent standards for greenhouse gas emissions from cars will help create hundreds of jobs in a state where his company operates—a state whose U.S. senators have both opposed the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

These attacks are aimed at the EPA, but their impacts are felt by all Americans. Pollutants like mercury, smog and soot are neurotoxins and killers that cause developmental problems and asthma in kids, and heart attacks in adults. We will not strengthen our economy by exposing our communities and our workers to more pollution.

In these politically charged times, we urge Congress and the American people to focus on results from common-sense policies, not inaccurate doomsday speculations. That is how we can confront our nation’s economic and environmental challenges and lay a foundation for the next 40 years and beyond.

Ms. Jackson is administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

* [Oops. Same birthday as Donna. Happy birthday, Donna! Happy EPA's 40th (yours, too? can't be much more, can it?)]

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11 Responses to EPA at 40: Director Jackson claims too much?

  1. James Hanley says:

    The measure of environmental regulations should be an improvement in environment.

    Well, you certainly couldn’t do a good measure without putting that value in the formula. But I’d also consider how much benefit and how much cost. That’s not always a popular position among environmentalists to be sure, but whether by nature or just by training, I’m very much a benefit/cost guy. Not trying to be nasty and argumentative–I just always have a knee jerk response to any suggested assessment that only includes costs or only includes benefits.

    And since you may not have really intended to say only benefits should be considered, and not costs, my knee-jerk response may be entirely unfair. So there’s coal in your stocking for Christmas!! *grin*

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  2. Ed Darrell says:

    But it’s also true that command-and-control regulation often is an inefficient way to achieve environmental goals and that job creation is a lousy measure of environmental regulations. (Of course, job destruction is, by itself, also not a great measure, and I recognize that Jackson is just rebutting her critics on the ground they’ve chosen. I would just prefer that she shift the ground of debate rather than pursue it on such irrelevant terrain.)

    Absolutely. The measure of environmental regulations should be an improvement in environment. And a third-party assessment would be good (I’ll wager there are some good ones).

    It’s difficult to imagine a popular regulatory scheme that takes what is essentially a private property right — to be free from nuisance, including dirty water and dirty air, dangerous pesticides, and dangerous landfills — and turns it into a workable enforcement scheme that protects the anti-nuisance rights of people with nominal stakes in any particular action.

    EPA is a stellar attempt at the answer, though.

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  3. James Hanley says:

    Ed,

    Well, color me still skeptical but still not too concerned, for several reasons.

    Still skeptical for two reasons. First, I take everyone’s self-approving claims with multiple grains of salt. Everyone has a reason to claim too much, government agencies no less than private corporations. I’d take much more seriously an independent third-party assessment. Second, businesses–particularly small businesses–close all the time, and rarely are the reasons recorded. I would be highly dubious of any claims that the EPA actually knows how many jobs have been lost due to their regulations, and without that data they can’t make meaningful claims about net job effects.

    Not too concerned for two reasons also. One, as I noted in slightly different words below, job-killing regulations don’t bother me too much if the jobs are based on imposing negative externalities on others. Those were, by definition, inefficient jobs. So a really thorough analysis of job effects would count the loss of those jobs as a regulatory benefit–but it’s well-nigh impossible to tease out all that data. Second, the American job machine mostly goes on creating new jobs at an impressive clip, despite occasional slumps like the present. The U.S. labor force has grown by leaps and bounds in the years since the EPA was created, and yet general unemployment rates trend fairly steady over that time, mostly because the Federal Reserve Board ensures that it remains so. (This is the same point Paul Krugman made to both NAFTA critics and boosters, pre-ratification–that it would have no appreciable effect on unemployment, either negative or positive, because Fed actions to keep unemployment rates and inflation within bounds would offset any job creation/destruction effects).

    So while I just can’t take Jackson’s claim at face value, I don’t think what she’s talking about matters too terribly much. I am generally supportive of the EPA–it clearly hasn’t impoverished the U.S., and there have been real quantifiable benefits of environmental protection. But it’s also true that command-and-control regulation often is an inefficient way to achieve environmental goals and that job creation is a lousy measure of environmental regulations. (Of course, job destruction is, by itself, also not a great measure, and I recognize that Jackson is just rebutting her critics on the ground they’ve chosen. I would just prefer that she shift the ground of debate rather than pursue it on such irrelevant terrain.)

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  4. Ed Darrell says:

    I don’t want to attack the EPA, but I do take issue with the meaningfulness of her 1.5 million jobs claim. The purpose of economies is not to create jobs, but to create goods and services. It’s hard to imagine that without jobs, but as I like to ask my students, which of the following options do we consider paradise: a) a world in which there are no jobs, but we all have all the goods and services we need and want, or b) the world in which everyone has a job, but none of us has any of the goods and services we need and want?

    Jackson would probably agree.

    What she said is more along the lines of what you said we need:

    Alleged “job-killing” regulations have, according to the Commerce Department, sparked a homegrown environmental protection industry that employs more than 1.5 million Americans.

    How many people are employed in making, installing and maintaining catalytic converters in automobiles that make cleaner air? How many people are employed building and operating sewage treatment plants that make cleaner water? In a well-run city, how many people are employed to take care of the pollution sinks all over the city, the city’s trees?

    The nay-sayers said that we’d kill the coal-fired powerplant industry, but there are more coal-fired power plants, and more coal production today than when the agency was created.

    Clean air and water, and soil, could be considered products, but products that are astonishingly difficult to price and market. There is demand for those things — see the redevelopment of Pittsburgh as one example, or the redevelopment of the Los Angeles basin as another — but too many economists count these products as costs to be avoided.

    Does anyone else remember the study that demonstrated that getting the lead out of gasoline had increased the IQ of our kids by several points? It may be a small thing, but that collective IQ increase could also be the intelligence that gets us out of an economic mess, or saves us in war time.

    How do you put a price on raising a nation’s collective IQ? Is it worth nothing simply because it’s difficult to price?

    Jackson’s point was that the nay-saying prognosticators of the late 1960s and early 1970s were wrong. Clean air and water don’t kill industries. They make new industries. Clean air doesn’t kill jobs, getting clean air makes new jobs, and so does having clean air.

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  5. Ed Darrell says:

    But the approach some of these conservative economists take is that the most important thing a government can do is stimulate the economy.

    Except when the economy really needs stimulation, at which point they claim the most important thing to do is take money from the poor and middle class and transfer it to the really wealthy. Sheriff of Nottingham Economics.

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  6. James Hanley says:

    I don’t want to attack the EPA, but I do take issue with the meaningfulness of her 1.5 million jobs claim. The purpose of economies is not to create jobs, but to create goods and services. It’s hard to imagine that without jobs, but as I like to ask my students, which of the following options do we consider paradise: a) a world in which there are no jobs, but we all have all the goods and services we need and want, or b) the world in which everyone has a job, but none of us has any of the goods and services we need and want?

    The reason I bring this up is because simply creating jobs, if it is a consequence of economic inefficiencies, is nothing to be excited about. French economist Frederic Bastiat wrote a wonderfully snarky little piece called “a negative railroad,” in which he took aim at the idea of creating jobs instead of creating efficiency. He noted that for the railroad that was then being built in France–to move goods more efficiently–it was argued that there should be a gap at Bordeaux, t provide jobs for “boatmen, porters, owners of hotels, etc.” Bastiat responded that if it made sense for Bordeaux, it made sense for every town along the tracks, and so “By this means, we shall end by having a railroad composed of a whole series of breaks in the tracks, i.e., a negative railroad.”

    To put it back into a more contemporary context, if a government agency’s primary purpose or goal is to create jobs, they could just pass regulations that do that directly. The EPA could pass a rule requiring that every company hire one person whose sole job is to test the drinking water once per day by drinking one cup of it. With over 20 million companies in the world, they’d create even more jobs, and would have more to boast about.

    But I don’t want to take this too far. Many environmental problems result from economic inefficiences, companies externalizing their costs by dumping their waste into public water/airways instead of dealing with the cost of it themselves. It’s efficient for the company to externalize the cost, but not efficient from the broader economic perspective. So some of the jobs created as a process of eliminating those externalities certainly are productive, efficiency-enhancing, jobs.

    But it’s certain–due to the nature of bureaucratic command-and-control regulation–that some of those jobs are not efficiency-enhancing, but are for compliance with socially inefficient regulation. (Emphasis here on socially inefficient–I have no sympathy with businesses claiming it hurts their efficiency, when their efficiency is based on making me an involuntary payer of their costs–like the farms that make the river two blocks from my house unsafe to swim in due to e. coli.)

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  7. Hey Ed–I think you have it right. I am an environmental specialist for a government agency, and we are regulated by the EPA. Before that I worked for private firms that were regulated by the EPA. Generally I hate to see them show up because they are regulators and they carry big sticks. However, without the EPA or other government regulatory agencies we would have a lot more pollution. Economists like to talk about how market forces can solve environmental problems, but it has to be done at the nit-picky detail level.
    Regulations are a necessary evil.
    The EPA has pushed a number of other items that control pollution or prevent it without a regulatory approach, and they are successful as well.
    But the approach some of these conservative economists take is that the most important thing a government can do is stimulate the economy. I think that is plain wrong, especially if it is at the expense of quality of life–not just from an environmental perspective, but from a social perspective as well.

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  8. Ed Darrell says:

    Also yes, I have an insidious, dark intent.

    Certainly you have a strong tendency to read what is not written. I clearly referred to the anti-Rachel Carson stuff, about which I was clear.

    Yes, there is indeed a group with dark intent slandering Rachel Carson, and spreading disinformation about DDT and malaria.

    Do you, BT, count yourself in that bunch?

    You know, because reminding people that free lunches aren’t really free, and that the EPA perhaps is not solely responsible for all of the groovy things they claim, and that hey, even the EPA and government in general has screwed up royally too … I really have the intent of paving over the planet, giving control of the world to some evil mega-corporation that will pollute and enslave my kids, and the like.

    Where did she even hint that there are no costs to environmental protection? What she said was that the predictions that the Clean Air Act would cause all industry to flee our shores were in error. She’s pointing out that hysterical doomsayers were wrong — you disagree?

    Unless you do have the intent of paving over the planet, why the extreme attacks on EPA? You accuse Jackson of claiming credit for things EPA did not do — can you be specific?

    At Unbroken Windows, the author takes aim at the Love Canal incident, failing somehow to notice that it was not EPA who put the housing on the old dump site, nor that it was not EPA who took the land from the chemical company. EPA’s role was to clean up the mess.

    Did Jackson claim credit for anything more, in the Love Canal incident? Where?

    And the Cuyahoga River? Randy Newman was being sarcastic and ironic when he sang, “Burn on, Big River, Burn on!” The author at Unbroken Windows appears ignorant of the history of the Cuyahoga, and its extreme pollution, and its remarkable comeback.

    Do you contest Jackson’s statement that no one voted for dirty air and water? Do you contest her noting that much of the environmental protection legislation of the last 50 years has enjoyed bipartisan support?

    Do you contest Jackson’s call that we focus on practical solutions to problems instead of inflammatory, doomsday-style hysteria?

    I’m not sure you’re reading what Jackson wrote, nor responding to what is on the page.

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  9. Ed Darrell says:

    When would you begin A history? It seems logical, and unremarkable, to begin a history of an agency with the opening of its doors.

    She didn’t say that EPA’s opening began THE “history of of improvements to our health and environment,” nor did she imply that. I think it’s bizarre to tee off on things she did not say, ignoring what she said.

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  10. Oh, I forgot to add … really classy comment on the Journal writers and readers. I guess it one must engage in ad hominems …

    Also yes, I have an insidious, dark intent. You know, because reminding people that free lunches aren’t really free, and that the EPA perhaps is not solely responsible for all of the groovy things they claim, and that hey, even the EPA and government in general has screwed up royally too … I really have the intent of paving over the planet, giving control of the world to some evil mega-corporation that will pollute and enslave my kids, and the like.

    Yes, that’s mature. So feel free to question integrity, motives, cast dispersions. I can’t do a thing to persuade you that I actually care about trees or fuzzy creatures or clean water except by preaching the gospel or a religion I am not part of. So yes, I am totally insidious. Maybe even more so than the guys who write things like this (and hey, you can check the reference too – LA Times book review in 1989):

    “I know scientists who remind me that people are part of nature, but it isn’t true. Somewhere along the line … we quit the contract and became a cancer. We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth…. Until such time as Homo Sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.”
    David Graber-Biologist, National Park Service

    Still haven’t seen a point made regarding Jackson’s overstatement.

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  11. I don’t know, maybe we can start with this:

    “Forty years ago today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency opened its doors, beginning a history of improvements to our health and environment.”

    BEGINNING a history of improvement? That’s a rather bold claim. So before the EPA, no improvement. After the EPA, here come the goodies (and for free too, because hey, we get green jobs out of it).

    I look forward to seeing you discuss where I am off the rails.

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