Terrible Summer Sequels: Republicans Re-Hash Tired Political Theater Around Environmental Issues

by Raj Salhotra

Summer is filled with bad sequels; but this summer’s political theater, in which Republican politicians claim that environmental regulations will destroy the country, is the worst of all.

At a Politico event yesterday on energy issues in the 2012 election, Center for American Progress Distinguished Senior Fellow Carol Browner gave her review:

“I’ve seen this movie before in 1995, starring Newt Gingrich. […] We don’t have to choose, we can have both. They are linked — a strong economy helps a clean environment; a clean environment drives us toward a strong economy.”

The event offered a spirited discussion on the role of energy and environmental issues in the upcoming presidential election. Participants included Senator John Barrasso, Representative Diane DeGette, Representative Doc Hastings, former head of the EPA Carol Browner, and former CBO director Douglas Holtz-Eakin.

Here’s how the debate, which will likely mirror the discussion of the issues in 2012, played out:The discussion initially dealt with energy subsidies, and Mr. Holtz-Eakin, accurately noted that the US has a “Mickey Mouse collection of subsidies.”  The panel consensus was that recent Congressional action to remove ethanol subsidies, which cost the US nearly $6 billion annually, was a positive step.  Logically, if removing costly ethanol subsidies was beneficial, ending expensive oil and gas subsidies would be equally desirable. Yet, Senator Barrasso declined to say whether he would remove oil and gas subsidies.  Barrasso noted: “I want to reform the whole tax code.”

If the goal was to reform the “whole tax code” in another debate, why did he support ending ethanol subsidies now and not oil and gas subsidies?  Barrasso implicitly said that oil and gas subsidies are good but ethanol subsidies are bad.

Subsidies to oil and gas companies cost the U.S. taxpayer over $10 billion annually. Even if the Section 199 Domestic Manufacturing deduction — which applies to multiple industries — is removed, the annual cost to taxpayers is still over $8 billion annually.  But, since he wants to “reform the whole tax code,” Senator Barrasso opposes removing the subsidy.  While Senator Barrosso believes “the best time for comprehensive reform is when you have a divided government,” judging from Congresses inability to raise the debt ceiling, it seems difficult to imagine comprehensive tax reform in the near future.

On a more fundamental level, rather than removing subsidies to the  extremely profitable oil and gas companies, Republicans support cutting $747 million from the WIC, $200 million from the Low-Income Heating Assistance Program, and $4 billion from Pell Grants.  As Representative DeGette argued “it is hard to ask Americans to take cuts in programs they rely on when they [Americans] subsidize oil and gas companies.”

The conversation then turned to the relationship between energy and the economy. Senator Barrasso argued that the EPA’s regulations “hurt job creation,” that people are concerned solely about jobs, and that Americans must choose between a clean environment and a vibrant economy. Browner responded with her quip about having “seen this movie before in 1995 starring Newt Gingrich.”

The facts support Browner’s assertion that a clean environment and a robust economy are not mutually exclusive: Since the Clean Air Act was enacted, US GDP has grown by over 300%. A recent study also showed that proposed EPA rules on mercury arsenic and other toxic air pollution from power plants will “have a slightly positive impact on job growth in coming years.”

Since 1977, the Clean Air Act has created over 1.3 million jobs and had a benefit to cost ratio of 26:1. As Holtz-Eakin noted, the EPA’s Acid Rain program, which established a cap-and-trade mechanism for reducing Sulfur dioxide emissions, was “a triumph of market policies to improve the environment.”

Before concluding, the panelists addressed the issue foremost on Americans’ minds: jobs. With 9.2% unemployment and 24 million Americans either unemployed or underemployed, jobs and job-creation policies are of supreme importance. Senator Barrasso commented that the US needs more “red-white-and-blue” (i.e. oil and gas) jobs as opposed to green, clean energy jobs.

Does Senator Barrasso actually believe that the 2.7 million Americans employed in green jobs are somehow less American than those working in “red-white-and-blue” jobs? In fact, according to a recent Brookings Institute study, more Americans are employed in the clean economy than in the fossil fuel sector. Through investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, or smart grid, the clean energy economy can both create jobs and boost US economic growth.

Representative DeGette ended the panel discussion by saying: “this [debate] is about values.” Indeed, they are: While Republicans seek to slash and burn programs for clean air and clean water that actually support economic growth in America, voters in the 2012 elections will be able to gauge where their environmental values truly are.

— Raj Salhotra, intern with the Energy and Environment team at the Center for American Progress

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