In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Obama is likely to focus heavily on economic growth and job creation. But he should also make clear that economic progress need not come at the expense of the environment; to the contrary, the public-health efforts he’s made over the past year will generate billions of dollars in value for the American public.
In a preview of the speech, Obama suggested there will be some focus on energy — hardly surprising since the Keystone XL pipeline and congressional inquiry into Solyndra were such high-profile issues in the past year. The administration’s decisions on environmental regulation this past year made news too — the delays and punts that angered environmentalists, like the ozone standard and coal ash rule, and the public-health protections that have angered industry, like the mercury rule.
Energy even boiled over into the presidential campaign recently: The Obama-Biden 2012 campaign’s first TV ad of the season was something of a rebuttal to the president’s critics in the energy industry.
With energy and environmental topics in the news, and many Americans confused about their impact on jobs, it makes sense that the president would want to give more airtime than usual to these issues in his speech.
In doing so, he would do well to combat the argument that has become conventional wisdom about the effect of environmental efforts on jobs: that somehow new rules can “kill” or “create” jobs. The downturned economy has allowed this questionable idea to dominate the debate over public-health efforts.
Neither cutting nor strengthening environmental regulations will do anything to address the jobs crisis. It is macroeconomic factors like availability of credit and consumer demand that affect unemployment. Nothing the Obama administration has done to clean the air or protect public health will have significant impacts on the unemployment rate.
Correcting the erroneous notion that environmental regulation is an important driver of unemployment is in Obama’s interest. The longer this false assumption lingers out there, the more damage it can do to the president’s political outlook, not to mention public health and the environment.
Overall, the Obama administration has shown support for rules that protect clean air and water, balanced by concern about their costs. Though he has not taken as hard a line as green groups would like, the president has made important strides. Recent rules from EPA will help cut interstate pollution from power plants and improve fuel efficiency for cars. Along with other rules in the pipeline, these advances demonstrate a commitment to strong public health and environmental protections.
But beyond appealing to those who specifically care about green issues, these efforts are a boon to the American public. They generate billions in economic benefits — doctors’ bills never sent, sick days never taken, untimely deaths avoided. In his State of the Union speech, Obama should take credit for these money-saving measures. They provide huge value for the nation’s families and that’s something to be proud of.
The president’s energy and environmental agenda has been used as a weapon by his opponents for most of his term. But they may find that they have picked up a double-edged blade. The efforts of EPA and other agencies under Obama have been greatly beneficial to the American public. Making that case Tuesday night could take what his opponents hope will be a liability in the campaign and turn it against them.