With U.S. EPA taking intense criticism from Republicans and businesses, Administrator Lisa Jackson said today her 40-year-old agency is battling a new problem: Americans are taking a healthy environment for granted.
When EPA was created in 1970, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it caught fire. Pittsburgh and Los Angeles were choking on smog on a daily basis. And the widespread use of DDT and other toxic chemicals was killing off bald eagles -- the very symbol of the United States.
The nation's rivers aren't burning anymore, Jackson said. The air is clean enough that many people don't notice it. Struggling species have rebounded. But because younger people have no memories of those days, they might not realize why the agency was created in the first place, she said.
Critics say EPA has already picked all the low-hanging fruit in the Clean Air Act and other statutes. But Jackson said there are still ways for the agency to address public health and the environment -- especially by imposing more rules on electric utilities.
"We've made enormous progress," she said. "We've gotten to the point now where we don't see the pollution as often as we did, and in some ways, that makes our job a little bit harder. It's pollution that's less easy to photograph and less easy to get people riled up about."
The talk today at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Aspen Institute, a think tank, kicked off a week of events commemorating EPA's creation on Dec. 2, 1970. Jackson is scheduled to tout the agency's focus on children's health tomorrow at a charter school in Atlanta and to speak Friday during a symposium on U.S. environmental policy at Harvard University.
During the series of appearances, Jackson will be playing defense as well as reflecting on the agency's past. When they take control of the House next year, the Republicans intend to increase oversight of the agency's programs and try to rein in rules they consider excessive.
They say the cost of new regulations is pushing existing jobs overseas and preventing companies from investing in costly new facilities.
The agency's regulations were challenged again today by incoming House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who is competing for the gavel of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Regulations such as the upcoming revision to the national smog standard "may devastate our economy and send us into a prolonged recession," the lawmakers said.
"Now that Republicans have recaptured the House, we think it is time for a fundamentally different approach in the defense of liberty," they wrote in a Washington Times op-ed. "Committees with significant oversight duties must work together to block agencies from freely passing regulations that have no regard or concern for the potential damage to job growth and the economy."
Regs won't hurt economy -- Jackson
Jackson said she is "absolutely adamant" that the government can provide a cleaner environment to Americans without stopping economic growth, especially after a quarter in which American businesses made record profits. She acknowledged that EPA's programs are less fruitful now than they were in the beginning, but the numbers still show more benefits than costs.
According to annual figures compiled by the White House Office of Management and Budget, EPA regulations produced between $82 billion and $533 billion in benefits between 1999 and 2009, compared with between $26 billion and $29 billion in costs.
Though the agency produced 30 or 40 times more benefits than costs in its earlier years, the equation still favors the programs, Jackson said.
"I don't think that this should ever be framed to people as, 'OK, it's time to choose: Do you want a job, or do you want a clean environment?'" Jackson said. "We are not there. We are nowhere near that line, and we can have both."