Friday, May 9, 2014

Cameron Smith: The balancing act between economy and environment

  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s International Energy Outlook 2013, world energy consumption is projected to increase 56 percent between 2010 and 2040.

  Even with such growing demand, we are making significant progress towards a cleaner environment. Consider air quality in Alabama. According to the EPA’s Air Quality Index, the number of days in which air quality in Alabama has been unhealthy has fallen 97% since 1980. During the 1980s, approximately 1 in every 8.3 days in Alabama had unhealthy air in at least one of its cities. As of 2010-2012, that ratio has declined to 1 in every 80 days.

  As the EPA has tightened standards, Alabama has kept pace. In the 1970s, industrial particulates were largely responsible for the heavy smog covering some Alabama cities like Birmingham. In an Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) letter to EPA Regional Administrator Heather Toney dated March 03, 2014, ADEM Director Lance LeFleur stated that "all monitors in the State of Alabama meet the 2012 annual [standards for particulate pollutants 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller]." To put the size of these particulates in perspective, an average human hair is approximately 70 micrometers in diameter.

  This progress contributes to a healthier environment for families, communities and businesses. Now, the challenge for our state and nation is maintaining a balance between sustaining our cleaner environment and the significant economic benefits created by lower-cost energy.

  Unfortunately, "balance" is not a focus for some environmental activist groups in Alabama or the Obama administration. In his widely-cited comments during a January 2008 San Francisco Chronicle interview, then–candidate Obama noted that under his proposed plan of "a cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket." Emboldened by a recent Supreme Court ruling expanding EPA’s regulatory authority, President Obama continues to unilaterally promote his ideologically driven agenda through regulation.

  In a promotional video, the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP), concedes that the "improvement in air quality over what we had in the 1960s is spectacular," but quickly states "that’s not good enough." One contributor to the video is puzzled by citizens "not out in the streets with machetes" in response to current air quality.

  While a return to the environmental standards of the 1960s and 1970s is patently absurd, so is suggesting that the "spectacular" environmental progress we have made over the last several decades leaves justification for a machete-wielding response.

  The economic consequences of heavy-handed regulation are impossible to ignore. Imposing mandates which create a marginal environmental improvement at tremendous economic costs is not a formula for growing an economy.

  Surprisingly, hyper-regulation may not be the best idea for improving the environment either.

  Political attempts to eliminate certain fuels from the domestic energy generation mix merely displaces where those fuels are used. Developing countries are more than happy to take advantage of resources that America does not and with markedly less regard for the environment. China’s coal consumption has exploded from burning around 1.5 billion short tons of coal in 2000 to almost 4.2 billion in 2012. Over the same time, the United States has pulled back from consuming a little over 1 billion short tons of coal to less than 900 million in 2012.

  Even as we burn less coal in America, largely due to extremely cheap natural gas, America is best able to develop the technologies that continually make fossil-based and nuclear fuel safer and cleaner. The global environment benefits more from America investing and developing economically viable technologies across the energy fuel spectrum than it does from letting China churn and burn as it sees fit.

  Balanced regulation that focuses on energy innovation, improved efficiencies, and environmental protection balanced with economic growth is crucial to our national prospects and the future of our planet. We can no more afford environmental policies designed with no regard to actual progress than we can a return to the smog-filled days of our past.

  About the author: Cameron Smith writes a regular column for Alabama Media Group. He is vice president and general counsel for the Alabama Policy Institute, an independent, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families.

  This article was published by the Alabama Policy Institute.

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