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They Took Our Jobs! (Not)

Today, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA)—that's "Ice-uh" for those unfamiliar with the congressman—ran a hearing in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about pollution from coal-fired power plants. The hearing unfolded roughly as expected, with one side—repped by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli—arguing that clean air standards are job-killers, and the other side—repped by Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Robert Perciasepe—countering that the tremendous health benefits of reducing toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants vastly outweigh the costs.

Now, enter Dr. Josh Bivens, the third witness at the hearing, who laid out an economic argument worth mentioning here, as it provided some refreshing clarity. Dr. Bivens, who works at the Economic Policy Institute, argued that now is precisely the time that we should be regulating big toxic polluters like the coal-fired power industry.

Because of the Great Recession, rather than spending their cash reserves on job-creating investments, big industries are just sitting on them. This is called a liquidity trap. Bivens argued that government regulations—e.g. clean air standards—are a great way to get these companies to start spending those reserves. In other words, the money that industry spends to comply with clean air standards will actually be highly beneficial for the economy. Factor in the substantial health benefits that accrue to the public when dirty coal plants install pollution control technology to control their toxic air emissions, and these clean air standards look even more like a no-brainer.

The timing argument is encapsulated in Bivens' submitted testimony: "In short, calls to delay implementation of the [power plant air toxics] rule based on vague appeals to a wider economic weakness have the case entirely backward—there is no better time than now, from a job-creation perspective, to move forward with these rules." All the congresspersons pushing for a delay of these rules are therefore pushing a path that will harm the economy, not help it.

There is definitely no better time from a public health perspective for these clean air standards. Coal-fired power plants are the worst toxic polluters in the nation. They release more than 386,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants every year. Reducing this toxic pollution is projected to save as many as 17,000 lives every year and annually prevent 11,000 heart attacks, 12,200 hospital and E.R. visits and 850,000 days when people have to miss work because they are too sick (due to illness caused by air pollution).

Bivens also recognizes the value of these benefits: "The improvements to health and quality-of-life stemming from the proposed [power plant air toxics standard] would be very large and make the regulatory change worthy of support in and of itself."

Earthjustice has worked for more than a decade to bring about clean air standards for mercury, arsenic, acid gases and the other highly toxic air pollutants that coal-fired power plants emit. We strongly favor action by the EPA that will reduce premature death and disease to the maximum extent possible. That's also what the law requires.

The EPA is scheduled to release its final standard to control toxic emission from coal plants on Dec. 16, 2011.