When Richard Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by executive order, politicians of all stripes agreed the US needed reforms, even if it cost a small amount of economic growth. Yet, after four decades of the EPA's helping to improve our land, air and water quality, ask whether we need federal regulation and the answer depends on whom you question.
Ask ordinary people in the US and, according to a 2011 Pew survey (pdf), 71% respond, across the political spectrum, that they agree with the statement,"This country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment."
Ask most Republican politicians, some Democrats and the polluting industries that provide them substantial funding, and you'll get a very different answer. And this divergence may be ramping up in the wake ofthe Citizens United supreme court decision, which equated free speech and political contributions.
Republicans returning to Congress after the Labor Day recess have a legislative shopping list running gamut from rolling back "job-killing" regulation to outright abolition of the agency. Republican presidential candidates would similarly strip the EPA of its authority or shut it down. As far as abolishing the EPA goes, Mark Schapiro, author of Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power, tells me, "It's an economic catastrophe to remove incentives and oversight."
Jonathan H Adler, director of the centre for business law and regulationat Case Western Reserve University, has received an award from the conservative Federalist Society for Law and Policy Studies – and yet he writes of the GOP efforts, "opposing the Environmental Protection Agency, by itself, is not a serious environmental policy."
Meanwhile, Democrats co-sponsoring legislation to curtail the EPA include Senators Jay Rockerfeller (West Virginia), Joe Manchin (West Virginia), Claire McCaskill (Missouri) Kent Conrad (North Dakota), Tim Johnson (South Dakota), Ben Nelson (Nebraska) and Jim Webb (Virginia); as well as Congressmen Mark Critz (Pennsylvania), Gene Green (Texas) and Nick Rahall (West Virginia).
And, on 2 September, President Obama, as is his wont, sought to assure critics of his reasonableness by arguing that the EPA unnecessarily burdens US industry. The president said that, while his commitment to public health and the environment is "unwavering", he has ordered the EPA to withdraw its draft ozone national ambient air quality standards in order to "underscore the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover".
Ground-level ozone is the primary constituent of smog, which leads tolung and heart disease. In June, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson testified before a Senate environment and public works committee (EPW) hearing on the clean air act and public health. In July, she responded in a letter (pdf) to EPW member Tom Carper (Democrat, Delaware) that she had opted to review the 2008 ozone standards, rather than keep them in place until the next mandated review in 2013. The Bush administration standards, which the outgoing president had weakened at the last minute in 2008 and are under court challenge. In Jackson's estimation, those standards are "not legally defensible given the scientific evidence".
Juliet Eilperin, who reports on on science, policy and politics for the Washington Post, called Obama's statement a "win for business". And, according to Eilperin, the forestalled ozone regulation may be joined by delayed "limits on mercury and air toxins, greenhouse gases from power plants, and a range of emissions from industrial boilers, oil refineries, cement plants and other sources".
The annual budget request for the EPA for 2011 was $10.02bn (pdf). Compare this, to the $11.4bn requested by the department of defence for just one family of fighter planes, Lockheed Martin's F-35 (pdf). The paradox of curtailing the EPA is that the benefits of its regulations outweigh its costs (pdf) due to reductions in disease and premature death.
Of course, in the US, manufacturing firms do not have to pay the costs associated with the pollution. Schapiro, who is also senior correspondent at the Centre for Investigative Reporting, tells me that the fact that environmental regulation is stricter in the European Union than in the US may derive from the US's lack of universal healthcare: "The economic argument becomes more potent where government … will have to absorb healthcare costs." Another difference, according to Schapiro, is that the European system fosters prevention (risk avoidance), the US-system favours litigation to obtain compensatory damages.
I'd observe that companies are willing to gamble with our health and safety: tobacco, the Ford Pinto, Love Canal and the BP oil spill all come to mind. In the past, the EPA has countered critics of federal regulation, saying – in Jackson's words – that "[s]mart environmental protection can actually drive innovation." Schapiro agrees:
"The dialogue between 'jobs' and 'regulation' is endless and repetitive, and in almost every instance, the claims by industry that new, more protective regulations would result in job losses and harm competitiveness have turned out to be dramatically overstated."
Take, for instance, how the US is falling behind Europe in green technology – in the field of solar energy. As Paula Mints writes:
"The US was the leader in solar manufacturing until the mid 1990s when Japan took over, offering government support to its manufacturing and its market. Once the FiT incentive gathered steam in Europe, its manufacturers enjoyed one year as the number one manufacturing region. Meanwhile, China's government invested – and heavily – in its crystalline manufacturing sector and export market, and in 2009 Chinese manufacturers began aggressively pricing product for share (a common practice, by the way). And now China's manufacturers control the market."
Beyond the economic argument, do we really want to go back to the days before the EPA? Nixon's first EPA administrator, William Ruckelshaus, describes that time in the Wall Street Journal:
"We humans with our big cars and our big factories and our big cities were discharging terrible stuff into the air and water, and it had to be stopped or we would soon make our nest uninhabitable. The public was growing increasingly outraged. Every night on colour television, we saw yellow sludge flowing into blue rivers; every day, as we drove to work, we saw black smudges against the barely visible blue sky. We knew that our indiscriminate use of pesticides and toxic substances was threatening wildlife and public health.
"But we didn't do much about it. Until 1970, most regulation of industry was done by the states, which competed so strongly for plants and jobs that regulating companies to protect public health was beyond them.
"Environmentally, it was a race to the bottom."
Which is where our lawmakers will take us again, if we let them.
Beth Wellington is a poet, journalist and activist living in Virginia.