Environment News You Probably Missed

Published November 8, 1996

Coverage of environment issues on television and in newspapers during the past several months has been dominated by partisan politics. The Republicans propose reforms they say would make environmental protection less expensive and more effective. Democrats claim those efforts would “repeal twenty years of bipartisan environmental protection legislation.” Environmental organizations–losing members and on the ropes just a year ago–are churning out millions of direct mail letters assailing the “right-wing attack” on the environment.

As exciting as politics can be, it sometimes diverts attention from more important news about the environment. Here, for example, are four recent developments that went virtually unnoticed by the major media:

Ninety-eight CEOs ask President Clinton to reconsider climate change commitments. The State Department has begun UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva with other countries concerning ways to cap or reduce carbon emissions after the year 2000. In a remarkable display of concern over the direction of those negotiations, this summer the CEOs of nearly one hundred of the nation’s largest companies sent President Clinton an open letter.

“We are deeply concerned that such negotiations may lead to premature agreements that will severely disadvantage the U.S. economy and U.S. competitiveness simply to meet an arbitrary deadline,” warned the business leaders. “The U.S. has the most to lose and will pay the highest cost for many of the proposals currently on the negotiating table.”

Just nine days after this extraordinary message from the nation’s leading CEOs, U.S. negotiators rejected the appeal and instead offered to set legally binding targets to cap U.S. emissions. Business leaders in the U.S. were shocked. One reacted to the news by warning that the plan “could eliminate millions of American jobs, reduce the nation’s ability to compete globally, and force Americans into second-class lifestyles.” Those negotiated limits on U.S. economic growth will mean lower wages, reduced productivity, and a diminished standard of living in the years to come.

Radon scare exposed as a $400 million scam. The prestigious Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported that “radon exposure does not appear to be an important cause of cancer.” This finding directly contradicts warnings previously issued by the EPA and other government agencies.

Americans have spent an estimated $400 million testing their homes and water for radon gas and attempting to reduce gas concentrations to “safe” levels. That money was wasted on the latest environmental “crisis of the month.”

New ozone standards could cost Lake Michigan states $14.1 billion per year. Closer to home, the EPA announced its intention to set new air quality standards for ground-level ozone that would affect the Lower Lake Michigan Region, which includes parts of southeastern Wisconsin, Illinois, northern Indiana, and southwestern Michigan.

A thick report produced by Sierra Research, Inc. for the American Petroleum Institute estimates that reducing man-made volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions to just half the levels needed to attain the new standards in the Lower Lake Michigan Region would cost $2.7 billion a year. For the region to comply fully with the new standards would cost between $5.5 billion and $14.1 billion per year. (By way of comparison, the entire annual budget of the City of Chicago is less than $4 billion.)

The authors of the Sierra Research report conclude that “the entire character of the Lower Lake Michigan Region will change” due to “reductions in travel, rearrangement of housing or commuting patterns, and relocation of industry.” Cars are more energy efficient than mass transit. Finally, there is good news to report. According to the University of California Transportation Center, improvements in fuel economy mean the average automobile today consumes 3,593 BTUs per passenger mile, 25 percent less than the BTUs consumed in 1980.

While cars have been getting more efficient, buses and trains have been getting less efficient due to declining ridership and the addition of energy-hungry amenities such as air conditioning. Consequently, transit buses now consume 4,374 BTUs and trains consume 3,687 BTUs per passenger mile.

The old saw among environmentalists–that public investment in mass transit is the best way to “save energy”–is no longer true. This new information may lead some cities to reconsider their tax subsidies to mass transit systems.

These are only four stories that never made it to the evening news or the local newspaper. Yet who can doubt that they deserve national attention? When nearly one hundred CEOs say the U.S. government is negotiating away the nation’s economic future, is that not news? How many people in the “Lower Lake Michigan Region” know the “entire character” of their lives is about to change because of a change in environment regulations? Who will tell homeowners that they no longer have to worry about radon levels, or commuters that their decision to ride a bus or train is no longer the environmentally correct thing to do?

“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” said Wendell Phillips over a century ago. Apparently, that is also the price of sound environment policy today. Pity that the nation’s media are not up to the job.

Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute, an independent nonprofit organization based in Palatine, Illinois. He is also coauthor of Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1995).