Environmental Protection Shouldn’t Mean Economic Suicide
When I was in college in southern California many years ago, the smog could be overwhelming. Visibility was low and the sense of being closed-in by a layer of brownish-grey was ongoing. Then, one day it rained. The sky was actually blue and, to my great surprise, you could see the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance.
In the ensuing 40-plus years, the United States has made great progress in its war against all manner of pollution. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, since the enactment of the Clean Air Act in 1970 through 2019, “the combined emissions of the six common pollutants (PM2.5 and PM10, SO2, NOx, VOCs, CO and Pb) dropped by 77 percent.” This has occurred even as energy consumption has remained at an almost constant level — despite growth in the population by about 100 million people.
The EPA also reports that “Compared to 1970 vehicle models, new cars, SUVs and pickup trucks are roughly 99 percent cleaner for common pollutants (hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particle emissions).” Additionally, the U.S. is increasingly using renewable energy sources. One example: From 2000 through 2018, the use of coal as an energy source fell from about 23% percent of our total energy portfolio to about 13 percent. Similarly, clean natural gas went from accounting for about 24% percent of our energy consumption to about 31%. Other renewable energy sources (nuclear, solar, etc.) are also increasing. And, generally, the industrialized nations of Europe are also making notable progress.
But America still needs oil. A lot of oil. We will continue to need oil for decades to come. That is, unless we want to commit economic suicide.
That seems not to concern people on the environmental Left, who are outraged that President Biden opened up a relatively small sliver of Alaska for drilling. ConocoPhillips will drill 199 wells at three sites in the Willow Project area, employing 3,500 people outright and, over the longer term, several hundred in permanent jobs.
Here’s the irony: While America once again engages in national agony over a modest oil drilling plan, China is laughing up its sleeve at our tortured efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Just last year, China opened roughly two new coal plants a week. As recent report explains, in 2022 China’s construction of coal power plants was “six times as large as that in all of the rest of the world combined.”
India is in much the same boat. “From 2001 to 2021, India installed 168 gigawatts of coal-fired generation, nearly double what it added in solar and wind power combined,” according to one study. While the subcontinental nation is making strides toward clean energy use, the reality is that “its electricity demand will grow up to 6% every year for the next decade.”
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that America abandon its commitment to cleaner sources of energy. Rather, we have to simply be honest: If we tie ourselves to extreme environmental standards while much of the rest of the world keeps employing fossil fuels at record rates, we will only hurt our ability to foster job creation here at home and our capacity to compete successfully in the global economy.
Economic transitions can be hard. Carriage makers were no doubt unhappy with the advent of the automobile. The issue before us is how rapidly we should move toward a “carbon-neutral” economy. Under the Biden administration, even American agriculture is a target. In a biting analysis, Heritage Foundation scholar Daren Bakst reports that at last year’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, the administration advocated for policies that would “centrally plan how farmers produce food, what food farmers produce, and what food people eat.” The Biden plan “also appears far more concerned with environmental outcomes than efficiency, productivity, and affordability.”
As America moves toward “clean” energy, we should not do so to appease activists at the cost of jobs, prosperity, sound mining and farming policies, and our continued leadership in international markets. Our country does not exist in pristine isolation any more than the wind stops at our borders.
The only way we get a clean environment is if we have the resources to obtain it. The only way we have those resources is if we have a strong economy. And the only way we have a strong economy is if our laws and regulations make sense.
I love the memory of seeing mountains in the far distance. But I also like filling up my car’s gas tank affordably. We can have both economic growth and environmental health, but only if we also have a strong dose of national common sense.
Rob Schwarzwalder, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.