Last month, the Obama administration announced tougher Clean Air Act rules intended to reduce ground-level ozone, the chief component of the smog that plagues the Baltimore-Washington area and much of the nation. With at least half the pollution blowing into Maryland from the burning of fossil fuels outside the state (and much of the densely-populated Northeast faced with the same downwind problem), a nationwide approach is essential to cleaner, healthier air.
Yet Republicans in Congress, prodded in large measure by deep-pocketed coal, oil and related fossil fuel industry corporate interests, are preparing to go to war against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the effort to clean the air and address climate change. Their aim is to block President Barack Obama's EPA clean air standards at either the federal or state level.
That midterm election victories gave greater power to politicians from coal-producing states like Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (the nation's fourth largest coal producer) and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio (10th largest) is only part of the problem. The energy industry's willingness to generously finance the attack through the American Legislative Exchange Council and other influential conservative lobbying organizations also makes theirs a formidable cause.
Even as negotiators in Lima, Peru wrap up talks this week over an international response to climate change — an effort buoyed by President Obama's recent deal with China to eventually reduce greenhouse gases from coal-burning power plants — the possibility of the new Congress thwarting such progress is quite real. As the Senate's newest member, Louisiana's Bill Cassidy, who defeated Democrat Mary Landrieu in Saturday's runoff election, has observed, Republicans believe the EPA "should be rolling out the red carpet for energy jobs, not the red tape."
Never mind that the so-called red tape is mostly about saving lives and protecting the interests of the American people and the U.S. economy in the long-term. The link between ground-level ozone and asthma, heart disease and other life-shortening ailments is clear enough, and so is the threat of climate change and rising sea levels. The Supreme Court has defended the agency's right to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, so why is the science behind global warming or even cardiovascular disease so difficult for conservatives to swallow?
Sure, the U.S. could take steps to preserve and even expand the fossil fuel-related economy and the "cheap" energy that comes with it. But morally, that is worse than deficit spending. Rather than borrowing mere money from future generations to finance today's short-term needs, as Congress has done in the past, it would be robbing the health, longevity, national security, food production and economic opportunity of those children and grandchildren to come.
We don't doubt that Republicans have succeeded in stirring up public distrust of the EPA, particularly in states where thousands of jobs are tied to fossil fuel production, and they've done so at the behest of ALEC, the Koch brothers and other vested interests who are financing the angry communications. But their central message that proposed regulations are more costly to the American people than sticking with the status quo is fundamentally wrong when not-so-hidden costs associated with air pollution are factored into the equation.
Sustainability should not be a partisan issue, and denial of science is not a rational response to the dangers the nation and the world are facing. The energy industry has a right to spend its profits to promote its own self-interests but shame on those members of Congress who are being willingly duped by the industry into thinking the production of such vast amounts of smog or greenhouse gases carries no cost. The harm it inflicts is a form of taxation that everyone, rich or poor, will pay and will continue to pay for years to come.
A 2013 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study estimated that the U.S. suffers about 200,000 early deaths each year from air pollution. Others have pointed out that delaying climate change action could eventually lower the world gross domestic product by several percentage points, perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars annually. Those who express concerns about the impact of any major step backward in energy policy on the environment and the economy aren't "radicals," they're "rationals."