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The Other Side of the Pollution Reduction Coin: The Cost

a city needs EPA goals and objectives

Since the 1970s, significant progress has been made in urban smog and pollution. Carbon emissions and soot blanketed many major cities at the time causing notable increases in respiratory illnesses and poor health. But actions taken by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) resulted in notable improvements in subsequent decades. New regulations and requirements that limited fine particulate matter concentrations in the air significantly improved air quality. In essence, EPA goals and objectives were achieved over the ensuing decades. But despite these advances, some of that progress has recently been undermined. Climate change and the rising numbers of forest fires have again created cause for concern. And as such, new EPA regulations are being considered.

some cars that need EPA goals and objectives
EPA goals and objectives are great for reducing pollution, but meeting them costs money.

(Nuclear energy somehow got a bad rap, but it’s cleaner than fossil fuels–read up on it in this Bold story.)

Public health advocates and even some cities applaud these new rounds of talks by the EPA. However, it must be recognized that times are very different than they were in the 1970s. New factories benefit from technological advances that already reduce pollutants significantly. That means that tighter restrictions through new EPA guidelines will be more challenging to attain. Doing so could be much more costly by comparison, which might very well undermine innovation, productivity, and even jobs. EPA goals and objectives are certainly valuable when it comes to promoting cleaner air. But there is such a thing as going to far, and these new EPA regulations might do just that.

“There may be some economic costs to major polluting industries, but there’s real health and environmental costs if we do nothing.” – Brandi Whetstone, Sustainability Officer, Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission

Advocates for New EPA Regulations

When it comes to reducing air pollution, there are plenty of proponents in favor of the current EPA goals and objectives. According to the EPA, their proposal would reduce the current requirements of 12 mcg/cubic meter of fine particulate matter to 9 mcg/cubic meter. This would be a significant reduction that would reportedly reduce various health issues. According to the EPA report, health savings could approach $55 billion over the next decade with compliance. Though costs would be incurred through the process, they are a small fraction of these economic benefits. Thus, it’s not surprising that public health professionals support the potential EPA changes.

a tree living in a half polluted land
Saving the world from pollution is a noble cause, but don’t fool yourself–it will be expensive.

Interestingly, public health officials are not the only ones in favor of the potentially new EPA regulations. Some city and county officials are as well. In general, support or criticism for a change in EPA goals and objectives falls along partisan lines. But views are also affected by the types of industry cities and counties enjoy. Those with more “white collar” sectors like finance and technology see an advantage of cleaner air for their communities. However, these types of industries won’t be the ones that struggle with regulatory compliance or costs. Areas with heavy steel, aluminum, and other high-soot by-products are much more concerned. Not only could the new regulations force high expenditures but similarly restrict productivity. Depending on the situation, perspectives about tighter particulate matter controls vary greatly.

“One of the huge imbalances in our region is that the trend has been to cater to industry, treat them with kid gloves, give them billions of dollars in incentive money for them to continue their practices.” – Catherine Garoupa, Executive Director, Central Valley Air Quality Coalition

Potential Repercussions of Tighter Controls

a city that needs new EPA regulations
New EPA regulations could rein in pollution, but nothing the government does ever comes cheap.

As expected, any new EPA regulations demanding tighter controls over fine particulate matter will be costly. The same report cited above, however, suggests that costs would only be $500 million for compliance. Compared to health advantages, this figure looks unimpressive. But this estimate doesn’t tell the entire story. When the EPA imposed regulations in the 1970s, there were notable negative repercussions to follow. Specifically, over the next decade, overall industrial output, productivity, and levels of employment dropped. The costs imposed by the new EPA goals and objectives forced companies to cut back in other areas. Indeed, air quality improved, but it did so at a price. And many times, those most vulnerable are those with lower-wage manufacturing jobs.

In the past, new EPA regulations were combined with supports and grants to aid industries in their ability to comply. In all likelihood, these same strategies will be needed in order to achieve EPA goals and objectives. This is especially true for farming industries and manufacturing. As a result, it can be expected that tightening environmental restrictions on air pollutants will require higher subsidies. This will add to the estimated expenses of such regulation, which was not part of the EPA’s cost evaluations. This is already evident in the aspects of the Inflation Reduction Act that offers awards to finance green projects. This portion of the legislation alone allocates $27 billion in this direction. If such supports are not provided, then the risk for reduced hiring, lost jobs, and reduced growth will increase. These are important repercussions that must be considered moving forward.

(Get the lowdown on the Inflation Reduction Act in this Bold story.)

“What we don’t want is another asphalt plant, and we don’t want e-commerce. We want something in between. We’re trying to thread this needle between these hugely polluting plants and low density, low-wage warehouse jobs.” – Rebecca Maurer, Cleveland City Council Member

Keeping an Eye on the Prize

It’s evident that EPA goals and objectives are to promote cleaner air, advance public health, and combat recent rises in pollutants. But adopting new regulations that hinder business growth and competition may not be the best strategy. If this impedes innovation and undercuts jobs, then economic impacts may offset air quality benefits. Social determinants of health not only pertain to environmental aspects but socioeconomic ones as well. Likewise, investments in the semiconductor and solar industries could be hindered by such restrictions. Understanding this, it will be important the EPA proceed cautiously before finalizing its plans. Though benefits from tighter air pollutant controls exist, disadvantages do as well.


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