Sunday, January 31, 2016

Reckless: The Political Assault on the American Environment

Book Review: Reckless: The Political Assault on the American Environment – by Bob Deans (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2012)

This was a pretty good book by a journalist and spokesperson with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). They are an environmental group that is considerably left of center but not overly radical. The book focuses on the political right’s attempts to prevent and roll back environmental regulations in recent years. Throughout the book he emphasizes the origins and tradition of the conservation movement among republicans from Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt through Nixon’s creating of the EPA. Until recently, the environmental movement has been a bipartisan one. This book is a call to restore that bipartisan spirit of cooperation.

Deans points out that:

“During 2011 the U.S. House of Representatives voted nearly two hundred separate times to block, delay, or weaken the commonsense safeguards we all depend on to protect our waters, wildlife, lands, and air.”

The main argument the House invoked was jobs. Deans points out that past environmental regulations have not overly affected jobs and considers that the real reason was to protect corporate interests, particularly those of their political campaign donors. He also points out that it was a lack of oversight in the financial sector that triggered the 2008 financial collapse that caused the Great Recession – the biggest job killer of our time. Throughout the book he gives polling data about environmental concerns as well as House vote tallies and political campaign donor information. Polls show pretty clearly that no one wants our environmental regulations taken away. There are also plenty of quotes from moderate republicans, many who promoted environmental regulations in the past. Unfortunately, environmental concerns since the 2010 elections of a republican majority in the House have divided the lawmakers like no other issues. It has been dubbed the most anti-environmental House in history. Of course, in the three to four years since this book was written there has been progress through President Obama’s executive actions such as the Clean Power Plan, a few other EPA rules, and some non-binding climate agreements. The last two republican administration’s EPA administrators have called the current House record appalling and disappointing. They commonly quote that ‘conservation is conservative,’ although that seems to be changing in recent times.

The influence of the rising Tea Party and their allegiance and backing from corporate donors of the polluting industries and the far right media machines is a big factor in the split in the Republican Party that still persists, although there is some evidence that tea party influence may be beginning to wane. If environmental protection was a bipartisan concern in the past, it is not so much now. The creation of the EPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act were all passed during Nixon’s presidency. Although each was criticized as potentially detrimental to the economy the years following had very good economic growth. The American Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that environmental regulations of all kinds have resulted in less than 1% in job losses while adding significant protections. Corporations rarely do not oppose regulations and their protests should be considered mainly on the basis of practicality so that duplicative and unnecessary regulations are not enacted. The EPA is required by law to do extensive cost-benefit analysis for each regulation enacted. Often the corporate interests see greater costs. Corporate input is important but there are other factors to consider like innovation and changing (usually towards lower) materials and service costs. Amendments to strengthen the clean Air Act were signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. In 2010 the EPA estimated the benefits (including health benefits and reduction in lost work days) of those amendments at $1.3 trillion dollars while the cost of implementation was $53 billion the first year (undoubtedly the most expensive year). However, attempts to implement pre-authorized tweaks to improve air quality have all been strongly opposed by the House and after twenty-five years now have yet to be enacted due to resistance from power plant utilities. 

One of the strangest House votes was the one in 2011 where they ”rejected, 240-184, an amendment simply stating that Congress accepts the EPA’s findings that climate change is real, puts public health at risk, and is caused largely by human activities.” Only on Republican agreed. He points out that there is no scientific controversy about climate change (although there is some disagreement about the degree of human influence) but that the controversy is simply a political one. Several House Republicans have been and are still calling for shutting down the EPA or at least de-funding it to varying extents by voting to cut their budget. This is ridiculous. Regulations have basically become a scapegoat for many economic problems without much merit as even many corporations have expressed solidarity with many regulations. Typically industrial advocate organizations and “smokestack” industry lobbyists are the main detractors toward regulations and they are the ones who donate to campaigns. In several tirades against the EPA it is pointed out that they are unelected government officials since they are part of the executive branch of a Democratic administration. He points out that in 2011 after the EPA blocked the largest permit ever filed for mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia due to the company presenting no viable alternative for burying streams with blasted excess, the House voted to revoke EPA block. The House acted in this matter much faster than they would act in to enhance mine safety after the 2010 Upper Branch mine explosion that killed 29 people.

He notes the need to improve air quality in cities to reduce respiratory ailments like asthma that is on the long-term EPA agenda as it reviews and makes new recommendation for pollutant limits through time. These reductions in limits are always opposed by industry lobbyists and advocacy groups and their congressional supporters. It should perhaps be noted that not all companies in the smokestack industries automatically oppose regulations. Some support them. They also reason that the public and ratepayers can pick-up some of the costs through higher prices. In terms of jobs some regulations support an increase of jobs in the pollution mitigation technologies sector – an important sector which continues to grow especially as we tend to export those technologies and our expertise to places like China who desperately need them due to their poor air quality. The U.S. leads the world in many categories of environmental technology.

Pollution, fertilizer runoff, and manure runoff have been severely damaging the Chesapeake Bay estuary and other areas such as the nexus of the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf of Mexico. Fishing has been severely affected around the Chesapeake Bay. Red algae blooms (red tides) killed massive amounts of fish by de-oxygenating the waters. In late 2010 rules drafted by the EPA based on the Clean Water Act to reduce phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment. The final rule in December 2010 called for 20-25% reduction of these by 2025. It was a reasonable and doable reduction with 90% of the commentary in favor. The next month two agricultural trade groups filed suit. By mid-February the House voted (very slightly maybe a percent less along party lines than usual) to block enforcement funding for the rule.

The first two years of the Obama administration saw the same amount of regulations enacted as the first two years of the George W. Bush administration so there was no increase. Data shows that is demand that has decreased hiring and not regulations. Regulations are likely just a scapegoat for pro-business Republicans. Jobs were a key focus at this time, however, because of the major economic downturn a few years previous. Now, a few years after this book was published, unemployment is way down and the economy has been in a slow but steady recovery mode.    

Next he gives some examples of major preventable job killing catastrophes that were exacerbated by lax regulation: the economic downturn prompted by predatory lending and financial market manipulation; the safety lapses that lead to the 2010 BP blowout; and unnecessary increases in food-borne illnesses like salmonella and norovirus.

Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor adept at environmental law, risk analysis, and cost-benefit analysis was appointed head of the White House Office of Management and Budget Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), a newly created office. He perturbed environmentalists by convincing Obama to delay implementation of a new EPA rule reducing Ground Level Ozone pollution. Adjustments to other rules were made after listening to industry concerns. Even though environmentalists were not happy the process of compromise and flexibility has been functional in that regard and costs of implementing rules have been decreased significantly. I think Deans wanted to pint out there that the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to consider the practicality and costs of regulations even trimming their extent when necessary.

Deans points out that as many corporations posted record profits but no increases in jobs that certainly suggests that corporate shareholders eclipse employees in importance. This should be no surprise as the stated goal of business is to increase value for shareholders and there is stiff competition in that regard. Thus the so-called “corporate greed” that has increased income inequality is mainly just an increasing efficiency and success at pursuing the goal of profits – the sole bottom line of most companies. The solution is perhaps the adoption of new business models, ideally across the board that incorporate additional goals in line with social, environmental, and income equality values. This is not an easy sell. The Republican approach has long been to decrease taxes and regulations on businesses to increase jobs which are a result of increased profits. However, if the data show that increased profits are not correlated to increased jobs then it doesn’t work that way even if it may have in the past. Increased pay at the top could certainly be capped with the excess used to hire more workers on the bottom end for many businesses. This is one example of a potential feature of a new business model. Typically, companies cite uncertain demand growth as a reason for lack of hiring in a time of increased profits. There is no correlation between de-regulation and increased demand growth so the argument that regulations kill jobs is really a poor one, although they may reduce jobs by reducing profits so that companies may layoff and fire employees to keep from showing lower profits. Thus, the real problem may be the emphasis companies place on short-term growth and short-term profits that is often what affects their stock prices. There is perhaps no easy answer to this predicament. It’s kind of like a positive feedback that leads to greater income inequality. The ideas in this paragraph are my own and are speculative.

Deans also points out that pollution cleanup is often shifted to the public (think Superfund sites) and this is also likely to be the case with carbon emissions leading to climate disruptions. He quotes Nixon in saying that the cost of producing goods should also include the costs of waste disposal of byproducts and pollution mitigation. The costs of pollution should be internal to the companies that pollute rather than become external to them. One might call this publically subsidizing polluting industries which technically is not a free market but more like corporate welfare. This seems like common sense but it does imply making a choice as to what amount of emissions define pollution so perhaps it is the choice of quantitative limits that are being disputed.

Deans notes that Obama came to an agreement with car and truck manufacturers in 2011 to increase avg. mpg to 54.5 by 2025 – a pretty noble, with the usual objections of House Republicans. This should reduce demand for gasoline in the long-term and thus prices, as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.

Deans notes the domestic oil and gas boom, at its height during publication of this book. This has drastically reduced our dependence on foreign oil and can keep fuel prices low if as now it is kept robustly supplied globally – though now it considerably oversupplied resulting in too low of prices which favor the lowest cost producers such as Saudi Arabia in terms of market share. Deans also gives the typical anti-industry stance regarding the dangers of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing of shale, an unconventional hydrocarbon. In actuality the environmental dangers of unconventional oil and gas are only slightly more dangerous than conventional oil and gas and have been overblown by activism, media portrayals, and a few high profile accidents that are now far less likely to be repeated. Even so, more regulations have been enacted, particularly at the state level, which is how most oil and gas activity is regulated. Some new federal regulations have been enacted as well with a few more on the horizon.

Deans discusses the clean energy revolution which continues to gain steam but which is also dependent on direct government subsidization. Democrats basically support continued robust clean energy subsidization as do a fair amount of Republicans although quite a few Republicans do not. Solar photovoltaic technology was developed in America in the 1950’s and some Democrats have pointed out that we need to continue robust direct subsidization in order to compete with China, Germany, and other leading clean energy countries. Republicans latched on to the Solyndra bankruptcy in 2011 that was a result of a drop in solar panel prices in 2010 and 2011. Companies in Europe and Asia also suffered. While it is true that some subsidization money was wasted it did not become a trend and revenues, profitability, and growth of solar energy companies has rebounded and is fair to good at the moment. Deans points out that polls show a pretty large majority of people favor environmental protection and clean energy development. He also notes that at the time the Congressional approval rate was at a dismal 10%. He quotes Bush pollster Bob Teeter as saying that concern for the environment has become a core American value. Even polls among Republicans have expressed support for the EPA and environmental protection.

Early in his presidency in 1989 George H.W. Bush stated that, “I want to broaden the consensus for a clean environment.” He also stated, “I reject the notion that sound ecology and a strong economy are mutually exclusive.” Although the elder didn’t have the greatest environmental record he was able to overcome political divisions in order to pass amendments that strengthened the Clean Air Act in 1990. He also noted that, “.… polluters must pay.” The amendments dramatically reduced the pollution (sulfur dioxide) that causes acid rain and called for new standards to reduce smog, ground level ozone, mercury, and other toxic emissions. The House voted to block implementation of such provisions in 2011. Ronald Reagan often stated that conservatives conserve and expressed a desire to preserve land and a clean environment for future generations. His conservative philosophy was influenced by conservative philosopher and historian Russell Kirk who emphasized values of conservation and environmental stewardship. He warned against the overreach of unregulated industrial development by “special interests” as a possible source of environmental damage. He argued for a flexible conservatism different than the inflexible one we seem to see today. Some have called it “uniformly ideological.” While that may work well for assuring votes it leaves little imagination. Deans notes and quotes several moderate Republicans who have become disgruntled with recent trends in the party away from conservation, environmental concern, and accountability. Today’s so-called “dysfunctional politics” is likely one reason for the strong disapproval rating of Congress. He notes the pledge to not raise taxes initiated by Grover Norquist, an advocate of tax reform and smaller government. All but 6 Republicans in the House have signed on and 2 Democrats (at the time). Such ideological pledges can certainly be counterproductive to a politics of compromise which is kind of a necessity of our two-party system. One commentator has likened the loss of moderate Republicans to a loss of species diversity, typically a major minus for an ecosystem.

Corporate Clout and Tea Party Rage is the title of the next chapter. The tea party rose up in 2009 aided by ultra-conservative news media and wealthy corporate donors. Low taxes, limited government, and free market fundamentalism are emphasized. It seemed at first a grassroots populist movement but the influence of the media and wealthy corporate donors is considerable. They tend to be anti-government and pro-corporate fiscally but quite traditionalist socially. Their voice in government has been considerable with many tea party conservatives elected to the House and Senate. The House Tea Party Caucus (a very wealthy group of legislators) is now a major force to be reckoned with. They seem to be particularly against raising taxes in general but also against raising taxes on the wealthy and on corporations. They are to the right of most Republicans on most issues. They tend to be considerably against renewable energy development and for continued fossil energy development and they seem to despise regulations of any form. Big Oil, Big Coal, and the ultra-wealthy Koch brothers are among their biggest supporters. Oil, gas, and coal interests were 77% toward Republican campaigns in the 2012 elections. The Kochs founded Americans for Prosperity, a powerful super-PAC. Their focus has called for Congress to block the anti-growth agenda of the EPA and other regulatory agencies and ideas. Critics have complained that their influence is out of proportion and points out problems with money-based influenced drowning out people-based influence unfairly. Tea party Republicans are influencing moderate Republicans who are in fear of losing their seats in Congress. Deans notes that due to how Congressional districts are mapped out Republican or Democrat, the real races are in the primaries where moderates face ideologues.

In the epilogue Deans gives an account of president Obama going to the EPA in early 2012 to effectively raise their spirits in light of political assaults on their work. He reiterated the elder Bush’s comment that a clean environment and robust economic growth are not contradictory. Teddy Roosevelt favored laws to prevent corporate influence on the political process. He said they often lead to corruption. The 2010 5-4 Supreme Court decision in favor of super-PAC Citizens United blocked the latest attempt at campaign finance reform. Corporate influence in politics tends to drown out the influence of citizens and leads more cemented ant-corporate stances in the radical left. I think the divisiveness of politics in the U.S. is the real tragedy, where extremist positions on both sides get the most airplay and end up with the most influence. Thus, it is the middle that is being drowned out. Both Republican moderates and Democrat moderates are being drowned out I think by ideologues who support fixed agendas and show no intentions of compromise. It makes for a hostile body. That is not a good way to govern. Hopefully things will even out and we will see more pragmatism on both sides and less fundamentalism. Deans wrote a book here worth considering.      

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