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Air quality shouldn't decrease during election

BY WILL MATTESSICH | SEPTEMBER 08, 2011 7:20 AM

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Air quality shouldn't be a political bargaining chip.

Just before Labor Day weekend, President Obama announced that he would tell the EPA not to implement its new proposed air-quality standards, citing a desire to remove the "regulatory burden." The standards have been protested by members of the business community since they were announced. The president's move is indicative of a larger political trend: an increasing distaste for environmental policy and the EPA. As the first voters in the nation, Iowa caucus-goers need to force candidates to end the crusade against environmental policy.

The proposed regulations would reduce the allowable level of ground-level ozone from .075 parts per million to somewhere between .060 and .070. This change would satisfy the recommendations of an independent climate-research panel formed during the Bush administration.

According to the independent panel that created the report for the EPA, amounts of ground-level ozone lead to breathing problems and shorter life spans. The effects of the zone are harshest on children, whose immune systems are less developed, and especially on children with asthma or bronchitis. The estimates in the report show a potential 23.5 percent decrease in breathing problems among children in urban areas if the standards are taken down to .070 parts per million and 47 percent if they are reduced to .064 parts per million. The regulations would come with a cost. The EPA estimates it would cost the commercial sector between $13 billion and $90 billion by 2020 to comply with the regulations. The regulations would also add money to the economy, projecting a $19 billion to $100 billion savings in productivity and health costs, but they will have a significant positive effect on public health.

The complexity of the long-term versus the simplicity of the short-term effects of environmental regulation creates the perpetual challenge for the EPA. Atmospheric effects that may be glaringly obvious to scientists conducting research are difficult for the general public to understand and don't garner much coverage in the two-hour news cycle. It's difficult for the average person to evaluate the diffuse effect of something such as air quality related to asthma, but it is easy to look at a company's balance statements and see how much it costs to comply with the regulations.

Claiming that the rejection of the proposal is not political is a farce. Big businesses have been protesting the stricter regulations immediately upon their announcement. They claim that more environmental regulations would limit their ability to create jobs. It's surprising that a $90 billion cost 10 years from now will have such a large effect on job creation, considering that job growth remained stagnant last year while American businesses' profits skyrocketed.

But the purported job-creation advocates repeatedly target environmental regulation, which shows that it is an ideological, not a practical decision. The modern Republican Party has built up a cult-like hatred of environmental policy. Despite the fact that humanity's effect on climate change is acknowledged by more than 97 percent of the world's climate scientists, GOP candidates are expected to denounce it as a massive hoax, as do Rep. Ron Paul and Gov. Rick Perry, or at least take a wishy-washy non-position, à la Gov. Mitt Romney.

Unfortunately, Obama has now legitimized Republican criticism of the EPA through a short-sighted political move. Hopefully his jobs plan tonight won't include any more concessions to big business, but I doubt it.

It's time for the American electorate to end this disturbing anti-environmentalist trend. Economic growth does not need to come at the expense of society's well-being, but unless voters make it clear to Democrats, Republicans, and the next president that public health is not a fair price to pay for higher corporate profits, substantial policy will continue to be stymied.


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