Profits before health?

Profits before health?

September 3rd, 2011 in Opinion Times

On Friday, President Barack Obama instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to drop implementation of new regulations that would have reduced the nation's smog levels. The decision elicited prompt reactions from the groups most interested in the rules. Big business, of course, praised it. Environmentalists understandably condemned it. Ordinary Americans, who have the most to lose because of the president's act, should denounce the president's decision, too.

The rules scrapped by the president would have reduced the amount of low-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog, that businesses were allowed to emit. Corporations argued against the new rules, saying that they would be so costly to implement that they would be a drag on job creation and, though they weren't quite so vocal about them, profits. That's an entirely self-serving view that should have no political traction.

Unfortunately, lobbyists for industry have enough clout and enough money to influence legislative decision-making. Their determined and expensive campaign to sway the president clearly carried the day. Though the president tried to put a good spin on his decision, it's difficult to see it for anything other than capitulation to those who put profit ahead of the public good.

Obama said he was ending the effort to tighten the rules because he wanted to reduce what he called "regulatory burdens." That's a phrase straight from the conservative phrase book. Their goal, though they are reluctant to admit it publicly, is to reduce government regulation in order to maximize profits. In this instance, the victory likely will prove immensely profitable for Big Business. The triumph, though, comes at great cost to America and Americans.

Smog is dangerous to human health. There is undeniable evidence that it contributes to respiratory illness, cardiac disease and that it can lead to premature death. Knowledge of those facts is one reason why there is a need to tighten the rules governing smog levels. The lower the level of smog, the lower the incidence of illnesses and deaths related to it. The ultimate goal should be the elimination of airborne, illness-causing pollutants. That might not be possible in the short-run, but incremental reductions of the kind scuttled by the president would have been a step in the right direction.

Tighter regulations, according to public health and environmental groups, could save about 4,300 lives a year, help prevent more than 2,000 heart attacks annually and lead to considerable reductions in health care costs. The new smog regulations, for example, would make breathing easier for the millions of Americans with asthma and other respiratory ailments. Experts say total health care cost savings from the proposed regulations could have reached $37 billion annually.

The president said Friday that his withdrawal of the regulation did not reflect a weakening of his commitment to protect public health and the environment. "I will continue to stand with the hardworking men and women at the EPA as they strive every day to hold polluters accountable and protect our families from harmful pollution." His action, though, suggests otherwise.

The Obama retreat on the new ozone-smog standard suggests that the president and his advisers now believe that political and other concerns outweigh the health and environmental benefits of the EPA regulations that were scheduled to take affect. The decision not to implement the rules, it appears, is a calculated move to mute charges -- mainly from the conservative right, from Congressional Republicans and from the business community -- that excessive regulation is a drag on the nation's economy and on job creation.

Whatever the president says and however he couches the decision, he can't escape the truth. Friday's decision to stop the new regulations is a significant victory for the business lobby and a major defeat for those who put good health and clean air before profits.