False choice pits economy against the environment

Over the course of more than 20 years in environmental protection, I’ve seen countless situations where environmental priorities have been put on hold out of fear for how they might affect economic growth. The incompatibility of our economy and our environment is the false argument people have used for decades to hold up important environmental efforts. And it’s the same tired argument many are using today to try and block the American Clean Energy and Security Act in Congress.

But times have changed. Throughout the significant economic challenges of the last decade, one consistent bright spot has been the growth in clean energy jobs. Between 1998 and 2007, 37 states saw clean energy jobs outperform overall jobs. States like Kentucky, North Carolina and Texas saw clean energy job growth at double the rate of other jobs. Tennessee and Iowa added clean energy jobs at seven times their overall rate. South Dakota had a clean energy jobs growth rate an astounding 19 times higher than overall jobs. Energy investments in the Recovery Act are expected to create 1,400 jobs through solar projects in Florida, 2,600 jobs in wind energy development in Michigan, 3,000 jobs to build a solar plant in California and 1,000 jobs once construction is complete. This is just the beginning of a clean energy economy that is taking hold all across the nation.

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It’s become abundantly clear that the choice between a strong economy and a healthy environment is, indeed, a false choice. Both critical issues can be addressed with one solution: a sustainable, clean energy economy that creates millions of jobs, reduces our dependence on foreign oil, and saves our planet from the worst consequences of pollution and climate change.

This is a dramatic shift, and one that can’t wait any longer. Clean energy is poised to be the global growth industry of the 21st century, but right now America is falling behind. Germany is a world leader in solar technology. Japan has pioneered the hybrid car. China is developing six wind farms of 10,000 to 20,000 megawatts apiece. Here in the United States where we have some of the greatest wind power potential on Earth — as one recent study suggests, enough to meet our full energy needs 16 times over — progress has slowed on a 4,000-megawatt wind farm that would have been the nation’s largest.

America needs to get into the race. We need to unleash our innovators and workers to lead us into the clean energy future. And we need millions of good-paying, clean energy jobs that can’t be shipped overseas. We can get there with strong clean energy and climate legislation.

Some claim that we can achieve the same results with the status quo — by simply ramping up the domestic supplies of heavily polluting energy. We’ve been down that path before. In the first year of his first term, former President George W. Bush released an energy plan with a pledge to lower fuel costs for consumers and businesses, and reduce our growing dependence on foreign oil. Five years later, crude oil prices were up 143 percent. Gas prices had gone up 71 percent. Natural gas was 46 percent more expensive, and dependence on foreign oil had increased to 65 percent. Furthermore, simply increasing our use of domestic fossil fuels would do nothing to reduce already dangerous levels of pollution in our air. It would fail to help millions of American children who suffer with asthma. It wouldn’t allow smog-choked cities to eliminate air pollution that doubles the risk of premature births. Nor would it do anything to reduce the prevalence of cancer and other diseases linked to dirty-burning fossil fuels.

A clean energy and climate bill, similar to the one recently passed by the House of Representatives, represents a new path — one in which our economy and our environment work hand in hand. The average cost to get America running on clean energy is estimated to be about the price of a postage stamp per day for the average family, with a net reduction in costs for low-income families that need it most. Even in these difficult economic times, are Americans willing to make this small investment to safeguard the wellbeing of our children, to reduce the amount of money that we send overseas for oil, to place American entrepreneurs back in the lead of the global marketplace, and to create new American jobs that pay well and cannot be outsourced? It’s a small down payment with a very big payoff.

We’ve moved beyond the false choice between our economy and our environment. Today, our choice is between the future or the past; between clean energy innovation or the status quo; and between leading the world or following our foreign competitors. It’s time to decide.



Jackson is administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

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