Why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reflects Patriotism

By Saleem H. Ali, Cristina Archer, Jeremy Firestone

The beaches which millions of Americans enjoy as venues to celebrate patriotism and which have increased multifold in value are such due to decades of environmental protection. Photo of Santa Monica Pier, California by Saleem H. Ali
The beaches which millions of Americans enjoy as venues to celebrate patriotism, and which have increased multi-fold in real-estate value, are such due to decades of environmental protection. Photograph of an iconic beach pier in California by Saleem H. Ali

On December 2, 1970, Republican President Richard Nixon established the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This was the world’s first major government organization dedicated to ameliorating the environmental condition of its citizens. The world marveled at how the United States was able to address pollution concerns that were harming the welfare of ordinary Americans. Within the iconic “swing state” of Ohio the pollution had been so severe that in 1969 the Cayahoga river literally caught fire from all the organic chemicals and oil that had been dumped into it.

The decision to establish the Agency was not one of Green idealism or spurred by some “tree-hugging” Kumbaya moment. Rather it was a very calculated economic and public health decision that has been a major boon for US economic growth and the prosperity of its citizens. Even at that time there were special interests who opposed pollution control and predicted economic doom, but none of those predictions have transpired. In the most comprehensive study on the impact of environmental regulation on US economic competitiveness, Adam Jaffe and associates noted in 1995 that “ there is relatively little evidence to support the hypothesis that environmental regulations have had a large adverse effect on competitiveness, however that elusive term is defined.” In fact, US industrial companies have been remarkably nimble, consistently innovating and reducing pollution for less than the cost that was estimated when a given regulation was announced. In addition, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in the Whitehouse ensures that benefits outweigh costs in EPA regulations that may have negative economic consequences.

No doubt specific industries such as coal power have contended with enormous environmental compliance costs but this stringency has spurred innovation and cost reduction in other areas. Air quality standards have led to catalytic converters and greater energy efficiency and ultimately cost reduction for consumers in electricity bills and miles driven per unit of services provided. Not all of EPA’s work is “command and control” either. The Agency’s “Energy Star” program, for example, has allowed for product differentiation in appliances through competitive private enterprise and consumer choice.

There are also more subtle ways in which the Agency’s work has reduced costs and improved palpable security for Americans. Consider the effect of EPA’s implementation of Congress’ command to protect wetlands. Cities have retained natural storm surge protection, which has shielded coastal homes from extreme weather events. The value of wetlands in this context is so immense that private companies have even emerged to develop “synthetic wetlands.” Similarly the EPA standards on lead have reduced a major insidious pollutant from impairing our children’s neurological functions while helping to develop a whole new industry of anti-knocking agents for use in cars.

Americans can be proud of the green innovations their country has produced and continues to develop and the EPA’s regulatory “nudge” has been an important motivator of this improvement. This is not to say that the transition has been painless for all – American workers in older manufacturing sectors have lost out and this is where both Senator Sanders and President Trump would agree job creation is essential. However, the potential for job creation in green technologies is immense and is already much larger than generally recognized. Solar already accounts for the largest share of employment in the US power generation sector and the wind industry, which is heavily reliant on manufacturing, employs more than 100,000 Americans. The United States’ manufacturing renaissance that President Trump envisages can come on the heels of what Americans have already accomplished in environmental protection, pollution reduction, and clean energy transition.

The confirmation hearings for Scott Pruitt, the nominated administrator of the EPA, have raised serious concerns that the positive dividends of green investment might be ignored by the new administration. Mr. Pruitt has argued that his past lawsuits against the EPA were focused on letting States have more devolved control over pollution control. Yet, his reluctance to engage on the remarkably positive record of the EPA in spurring innovation should be a matter for concern to President Trump. Air and water pollution are inherently trans-boundary and state regulation of these sectors has its limits. Ultimately, having a clean environment should be a unifying element in our polity as Americans – protecting our land, water, and air should be a mark of truest patriotism.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.