Sustaining Environmental Quality and Economic Growth

A few weeks ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revoked a permit for one of the largest mountain-top coal mining projects in the United States. That left West Virginia’s politicians up in arms over what they consider major regulatory overreach by the federal government. The action also highlighted key issues in environmental policy.

The EPA revoked the permit based on evidence that the proposed project, which involved dynamiting more than 2,278 acres of mountaintop, would result in widespread contamination by mining rubble, known as spoil, and endangerment of human health downstream. Even opponents of the EPA’s ruling should recognize the possibility of health complications, and the subsequent monetary costs imposed, from toxic waste down the line. This situation is like the extraction of shale gas via hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” which involves drilling into rock to increase recovery of oil and natural gas. This process, once viewed as a paradigm-shifting innovation, has been linked to increased hazardous materials in the drinking water of fracked communities.

Coal also made news in “Dirty Coal, Clean Future,” a recent article in the Atlantic magazine explaining the seemingly contradictory concept of “clean coal.” In order to meet the world’s rising energy demands coal must be used in more sustainable and less damaging ways. Rising international pressure on China to conform to environmental restrictions has led to the reconstruction of thousands of coal-fired power plants in major cities, a process which one coal-plant manager in Beijing explains is “like trying to remodel your home into a mansion—it’s more expensive, and it’s never quite right.”

Refitting an existing coal plant to include a more sophisticated carbon-capture system is extremely costly, and seeking other forms of energy, whether by fossil fuels or natural gas, have negative externalities as well. So where does that leave us?

The concept of “Sustainable Development” is teetering on a precarious balance between environmental sensibility and economic viability, with the latter being all but forgotten. Ironically, nothing can withstand the test of time without adherence to both principles, and the environmental movement has endured several historical shifts that reflect the struggle to achieve this equilibrium.

In his new book, Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout: The Making of a Sensible Environmentalist, Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore explains how in the years following the Cold War the “environmental movement was hijacked by political and social activists who learned to use green language to cloak agendas that had more to do with anti-capitalism and anti-globalization than science or ecology.” Over time the environmental movement has begun to demand more diplomacy but dogmatism and militant activism has hindered the transition from confrontation to cooperation.

A better approach maintains the balance between environmental and economic priorities by embracing both development and human beings as positive and promising forces in our world’s evolution. Sound environmental goals cannot be built on a foundation which demonizes economic growth and disseminates misinformation in order to frighten the public. Immediate economic benefits must be counterbalanced with long-term environmental effects and vice versa.

T.J. Rodgers, Chairman of SunPower Corp. is both a successful entrepreneur and staunch environmentalist. In an interview with the Hoover Institution, he explains that you, “don’t have to agree with Al Gore politically in order to say that people want to make pollution-free power today.”

People should also understand that all power generation involves costs and tradeoffs. The EPA may indeed be indulging regulatory overreach in the West Virginia coal ruling based on sound environmental concerns, and the economic costs may soon become apparent. The EPA’s own data, however, show that in many ways the environment is now cleaner that it was on the first Earth Day in 1970, confirming that economic growth is consistent with environmental improvement. To sustain both, public policy should recognize that reality, not undermine it.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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