I just received a letter from a reader named Jeff Roberts about an article I wrote (posted Dec. 15, “Green stands for $$”) and would like to take this opportunity to respond.
“People in the Midwest states say California is full of people that do not have a good grip on the cost of all their mandates. Then we see California look to the federal government to bail them out.
“Now people are [whining] because other states do not buy into their restrictions and the businesses move to those states, costing California jobs and state money. Well, the same is true for the whole USA verses the world.
“Look at Wisconsin, the DNR has slowly driven manufacturing out of the state with regulations.
“Why don’t you write an article on the biggest scam of all. Green energy, wind turbines and the credits (I mean the subsidy money every American pays to whoever may own them) and carbon credits.
“I really do not see the USA industry surviving this next good idea.”
I agree, Californians don’t have a good grip on their mandates, and it’s not just in the pollution area. The state’s constitution allows citizen-sponsored initiatives to be put on the ballot, and if they pass they become state law. Many of these mandate certain levels of spending in specific areas, and limit taxation levels, which means the state government is in real fiscal trouble. The regulatory environment is much the same, with too little attention paid to cost-benefit analysis. Yes, complying with the new green regulations will be expensive. But the eventual cost of doing nothing would probably be greater, as I’ll discuss in a moment.
Many jobs have been moved overseas, and that’s a real problem. Manufacturing in the U.S. has been badly damaged by lower labor costs and lax (or nonexistent) environmental and safety standards in other countries. Have you tried to buy a pair of U.S.-made shoes lately? I won’t even get into the car industry.
But then again, look at the ship-breaking industry: Ships are no longer scrapped in the United States; instead many have been towed to places like Bangladesh, where they’re cut up on the beach by workers making a dollar a day with no protection against asbestos and other hazardous substances. Not a pretty picture. Perhaps in response to adverse publicity, a high court in that country recently ordered the closing of all ship-breaking yards that do not have environmental clearances.
We are told to recycle our e-waste, but much of it is shipped to third-world countries where it’s burnt or otherwise stripped for valuable materials by untrained people with no protection against chemical hazards.
As for direct costs of pollution to Americans, let’s consider increased healthcare costs due to air pollution (without trying to put a dollar value on quality of life). A recent report, The Benefits of Meeting Federal Clean Air Standards in the South Coast and San Joaquin Valley Air Basins by the Institute for Economics and Environmental Studies at Cal State Fullerton, puts the annual cost to California at $28 billion a year. Other areas (Houston and Texas City, TX, for example) have similar problems.
But perhaps the most important long-term problems are climate change and sea level rise. The March 16 edition of Science Daily reports that a number of studies predict rising sea levels will have an especially bad effect on New York City, with increased susceptibility to damage from hurricanes, among other things. The EPA has a whole section on line dealing with the effects of sea level rise on the United States. A 2008 MIT report entitled Estimating the Economic Cost of Sea-Level Rise puts the cost of a one-meter rise in sea level over the next century to the U.S. at several hundred billion dollars for the loss of wetlands, loss of capital, and the cost to provide protection (dikes and so forth).
Other areas at risk include low-lying areas in Florida, Western Europe and various third-world countries. Several island nations in the Pacific are making plans for the time when their countries will cease to exist.
What about climate-related problems, like the loss of farmland due to worsening droughts and related effects? Parts of the Midwest just experienced severe flooding due to unusual weather conditions. How unusual will those conditions be in the future?
The solutions, if they can be found, will be very expensive. Béla Lipták, long-time process control guru and winner of an ISA Lifetime Achievement Award, recently wrote “If Global Carbon Emissions Were Cut by 15% by 2050 by the Increased Use of Nuclear Power, 1,070 Plants Would Need to Be Built at a Cost of $5 Trillion.” That’s expensive, and it has environmental and security issues that have still not been dealt with adequately.
The windmills you dismiss may turn out to be a good investment. On April 6 the Associated Press reported that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said there is enough wind energy available off the East Coast to equal 3,000 coal-fired power plants, although fossil fuels would still be required. Oilman T. Boone Pickens has been advertising his Pickens Plan to cut U.S. reliance on imported fossil fuel and make more use of wind energy. Boone may be old, but he’s no fool.
Bottom line: Yes, pollution abatement is, and will be, expensive. The alternative is worse.