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The House GOP TRAIN Wreck | The Nation

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Mark Sorkin

Notes on environmental issues and energy policy.

The House GOP TRAIN Wreck

When House majority leader Eric Cantor rolled out his new “jobs agenda” for the fall, he made the party’s priorities very clear. “The following is a list of the 10 most harmful job-destroying regulations that our committee chairmen have identified,” he wrote in an August 29 memo to members, “as well as a selective calendar for their repeal.”

The politics guiding this legislative plan are in plain sight, of course; you barely have to squint to see through the rhetoric. It hardly matters that these proposals would fall far short of creating enough jobs to get the economy back on track, or that the regulations they seek to dismantle are necessary to safeguard the environment, Americans’ health and workplace rights. It doesn’t even matter that the protections on the chopping block are actually job creators. The top priority this fall is to keep corporate interests happy.


First up, and slated for the week of September 12, was the amazingly named Protecting Jobs From Government Interference Act. Couched as a “common sense step” to protect businesses’ freedom to hire as they see fit, the bill was designed to limit the National Labor Relations Board’s ability to protect workers from punitive offshoring. It was also, more specifically, a direct response to the NLRB’s recent complaint against Boeing, which undermined unionized workers in Washington by moving their assembly line to South Carolina, a right-to-work state. The measure passed last Thursday along partisan lines.



Now, right on schedule, the House is gearing up for a floor vote on the Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation (TRAIN) Act, which aims to restrict the EPA’s authority to update the Clean Air Act. The bill would slow the amendments process to a halt by mandating economic impact assessments of new air quality standards (this despite the fact that the EPA and the OMB already run such numbers). And thanks to an amendment by Kentucky’s Ed Whitfield, TRAIN would also delay, perhaps indefinitely, two proposed regulations that would reduce the amount of toxins power plants can release into the air and send wafting across state lines.

 The health benefits of these regulations are well documented. Here’s Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, on the two proposals:



The first is the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which reduces the smog and soot pollution that drifts from power plants across state borders and endangers the health of downwind residents. The EPA estimates that starting in 2014, every year this standard will prevent up to 34,000 premature deaths, 19,000 hospital and emergency room visits, and 1.9 million days when people miss work or school.



The second is the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard that would slash levels of mercury, lead, and other heavy metals from power plants fueled by coal and oil. These pollutants have been proven to cause 
neurological damage, cancer, and respiratory disease. Parents of small children routinely approach me with concerns about mercury exposure of their kids—they know this is real danger. But once the new standard is
 in place, it will save as many as 17,000 lives and prevent up to 120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms, according to the EPA.

Not so fast, said Whitfield. “We need to know the cumulative impacts of these regulations on jobs and on our economy, and until that data is available, we need to pause action on these two regulations being put forward by EPA,” he wrote when he introduced his amendment in July. “I am especially concerned about what impact these rules will have on the coal producers in my state and the jobs tied to the industry that plays such a vital role in meeting our energy demands, as well as the impact on electricity consumers.” Surprise: dirty energy interests—including Southern Co, Arch Coal, Koch Industries and the National Mining Association—dominate the list of the top ten contributors to Whitfield’s campaign committee.

What Whitfield and his Congressional colleagues don’t care to consider is the fact that green energy is an industry, too, and one with immense growth potential. The EPA estimates that the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard could create up to 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 long-term utility jobs. And Beinecke points to a study by the Institute of Clean Air Companies showing that clean air standards brought in roughly $1.3 trillion in public health and environmental benefits in 2010, at a comparatively insignificant cost of $50 billion. “Most Americans recognize that we can protect our health and grow the economy at the same time,” she writes.

The Economic Policy Institute looked into this issue, as well, and found a solid basis to refute GOP claims that Americans must choose between environmental law and job creation. A report released yesterday, based on detailed analysis of the major rules finalized or proposed by the EPA during Obama’s tenure, found that the regulations exceed the costs by “an exceptionally wide margin.” Compliance costs would total a whopping 0.1 percent of the economy. Meanwhile, “the net benefits from the Cross-State Air Pollution rule would exceed $100 billion a year,” and the combined annual benefits from three other proposed rules would "exceed their costs by $62 billion to $188 billion a year. The benefit/cost ratio ranges from 6-to-1 to 15-to-1.”

House Democrat and longtime enviro champion Henry Waxman got it exactly right last Sunday when he said during an interview on C-SPAN, “The Republicans are stuck in the fossil fuel past, and of course they are getting their support from the fossil fuel industries—the oil companies and the coal companies. So they conveniently want to block anything that will protect the public health if the industries don’t like it.”

If the House passes TRAIN, as it's likely to do by the end of the week, it'll be up to the Senate to stop the bill in its tracks—or, failing that, for Obama to make good on a veto threat the White House announced this afternoon. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Republican assault on environmental regulation, the TRAIN Act is just the beginning. Take another look at Cantor's memo: there are a lot more items on his to-do list.

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