Wy Mitch McConnell is wrong on pollution rules

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) recently urged states to join those already "refusing to go along" with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations that would cut air pollution from coal-fired power plants. Chief among his arguments is the cost of cleaning up smokestack emissions, which he calls "an attack on the middle class." Apparently smoke from this 19th-century technology has clouded the senator's views of the 21st-century economy, because the truth is precisely the opposite.

Mitch McConnell
Yuri Gripas | Reuters
Mitch McConnell

The senator cities unnamed economists who predict the regulations "could cost our country about a third of a trillion dollars in compliance costs and cause electricity price hikes in nearly every state," but I'll wager that his sources fail to account for the jobs and businesses created by investments in clean, renewable energy alternatives or the high price of pollution-related health-care costs.

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Since 2007 in California alone, nearly a quarter-million rooftop solar installations have created some 3,500 businesses and 25,000 jobs in the hard-hit construction industry. By contrast, a Kentucky state report shows "employment at all Kentucky coal mines and related facilities … was estimated at 12,342." Nationally 140,000 people currently work in America's solar industry and the economic benefits of wind, hydro, biomass and other clean renewables add still more to that total.

Nor are the health consequences of burning fossil fuels often included when citing the costs of pollution-control measures. A study conducted in southern California that was published earlier this month in the New England Journal of Medicine found that "reducing air pollution leads to improved respiratory function in children ages 11 to 15, a critical period of lung development." These benefits coincided with federal and state regulations that cut fine particulates "by 50 percent and nitrogen dioxide levels by 35 percent in the communities" of the study's area and timeframe. What is the economic value of the health of our kids?

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Or what is the value of the ability to learn? The Canadian Medical Association recently reported that researchers measured air pollution in schools and found "working memory improved 7.4 percent among children in highly polluted schools compared with 11.5 percent among those in less polluted schools." They also report that adults benefit from air-pollution reduction, too: about 21,000 premature deaths are attributed to air pollution in Canada each year.

Yes, the cost of delaying air-pollution controls are very real, though apparently not considered by our lawmakers. Nor do they talk about the cost of coal-ash spills. Just one such disaster in North Carolina will add $100 million to utility-customer costs, not including the cost to cleanup the Dan River; or compensate victims whose farms were destroyed; or cover costs for polluted water supplies as far downstream as 70 miles.

And what is the cost of mercury poisoning of our fish from coal- fired emissions; mine accidents and deaths; black lung disease; and the cost of climate change impacts already being measured and paid for by the most vulnerable people on earth, from New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina to epic droughts in Texas and California, where crop and livestock losses have surely contributed to increases in food prices for consumers. How do these hidden costs help that middle class the senator wants to protect?

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Mr. McConnell also states that Congress is "devising strategies now" to fight the USEPA. With all due respect, I suggest he turn congressional attention instead to dealing with these local, national, and global impacts of continued pollution from burning fossil fuels. As a former state regulator, I can attest to the benefits of thoughtful pollution controls (which may be achieved from many different approaches, to be sure), but I can equally assure the senator that the cost of inaction is far greater to public health, the economy, and the natural resources upon which our lives depend.

Commentary by Terry Tamminen, former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency. He is also the president of Seventh Generation Advisors and co-founder of the R20 Regions of Climate Action. Follow him on Twitter @terrytamminen.