Environmentalists’ Unrealistic Demands Hurt Poor and Minorities

Published April 1, 2004

The Bush administration is proposing dramatic reductions in sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury from power plants, yet professional environmental advocates are claiming the reductions are not enough.

I am not a scientist. I am, however, somewhat expert in how public policy is made and the unintended impacts it can have on minority and low-income people. I believe this is one such case.

Health and environmental experts at the Mercatus Center, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and other respected think tanks say the reductions promised under the President’s plan already exceed the amounts justified in terms of the health risks and costs involved. By trying to reduce emissions too much, too fast, we risk incurring social costs that far outweigh whatever small and hypothetical health benefits we might be aiming for.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, mercury emissions and their presence in the air are strongly trending downward (as are all other pollutants), and are expected to keep falling due to technological change and implementation of current standards, even without new legislation. Most of the mercury in the air and entering the Great Lakes today comes either from natural sources or from China and other Third World countries that burn coal without any emissions control. More strict standards on power plants here in the U.S. obviously will have no effect on those sources, and consequently will have no effect on air or water quality.

There is little hard evidence that eating fish and breathing current ambient levels of mercury pose a health threat, even to children and pregnant women. I know this is a controversial assertion, and I have already admitted I am not a scientist. So for documentation of my claims, I urge you to go to The Heartland Institute’s Web site at http://www.heartland.org and use its “PolicyBot” search engine to search for “mercury.” You will find nearly a dozen studies and commentaries exposing the junk science behind the environmental movement’s effort to link fossil fuel combustion with mercury emissions and health effects.

Reducing emissions will require that energy prices rise. Higher energy costs mean slower economic growth–the American Council for Capital Formation has demonstrated this fact to virtually no rebuttals–and African Americans and the poor are still the “last hired and first fired.”

Energy costs take a bigger bite out of the budgets of low-income folks than of higher-income folks, so higher energy costs are regressive. So we get hurt a second time.

And manufacturing is particularly affected by higher energy costs, because manufacturing requires more energy than the service and high-tech sectors of the economy, and higher energy prices therefore make it more difficult for manufacturers in the U.S. to compete with manufacturers located in other countries.

I have to wonder how many of the people calling for more strict environmental standards than what the Bush administration has proposed work in factories. Not many, I’m sure.

Wealthy and white environmentalists are advocating a feel-good policy without regard to the impact it would have on people of color, lower-income people, and blue-collar workers. The tears they cry for “poor people” exposed to pollutants are insincere.

They are indifferent in this case to the suffering their policies impose on the poor and the black community, just as they are indifferent to the suffering caused by their constant advocacy of higher taxes and more regulation of industry. They are misusing science and ignoring economics, and I reject their call for even more draconian reductions in emissions than the President has proposed.

Lee Walker is a director and senior fellow of The Heartland Institute and director of The New Coalition for Economic and Social Change. His email address is [email protected].