DENVER– Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson spoke Monday at the National Jewish Respiratory Hospital here as a member of a panel discussing the environment and the economy. Jackson lauded “new energy economy” legislation advanced in Colorado during the administration of Democratic Governor Bill Ritter for the way it managed to bridge a major contemporary political divide in order to protect the environment and boost the economy.
“The nation right now is facing important questions about energy production and use,” Jackson told a crowd made up of environmental activists, energy industry lobbyists and medical professionals and administrators. “In Colorado, you chose not to run away from the choices available. You saw opportunity. You chose to embrace a clean and healthy environment and a vibrant energy industry.”
Jackson told the panelists that state leadership is essential if the nation is to break what has become a political stand off, where Americans are made to feel they have to choose between supporting the environment or supporting the energy industry.
“In this state, you’re moving past this false dichotomy. You can fight pollution and create jobs… It’s not one or the other. The two go together.”
Changing the conversation
Ritter, currently director at Colorado State University’s Center for the New Energy Economy, acted as moderator of the panel, which centered its discussion around his signature Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act (pdf) of 2010. The legislation requires heavy-polluting coal-fired power plants to upgrade with clean-burning natural gas. The law passed with support from Democrats reluctant to embrace the natural gas industry and from Republicans from the oil-and-gas-rich western slope, including then-state senate Minority Leader Josh Penry.
Panelists at the event included Vickie Patton, general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, Dr. Karin Pacheco, assistant professor at National Jewish Hospital, Tischa Schuller, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, and state Representative Judy Solano, D-Brighton.
Ritter has been blasted on the right for advancing clean-energy businesses at the expense of traditional energy producers and for allegedly wasting resources on technologies and business models with unproven market viability. Right-wing blogs in the state reveled in the recent bankruptcy of California solar-panel maker Solyndra and anti-green GOP-driven cutbacks at the Golden-based National Renewable Energy Lab as evidence of the inviability of the US renewable energy sector.
Yet the green-energy sector is thriving nationwide and doing so in the job-killing recession, and Colorado’s support for clean energy is clearly drawing business to the state. General Electric recently chose Colorado over New York as the site of a new solar panel manufacturing plant, a development that will create hundreds of jobs.
In politics, though, progress often comes down to the kind of strategy that alters the terms of debate. As the saying goes, “If you don’t like the conversation, change the conversation,” which is what the panelists here agreed Ritter and his allies in the legislature did. They said the governor provided a framework that made compromise on the right and left possible by seeking to tackle environmental threats through incremental steps meant to prioritize increased energy and job production and by integrating the problem of public health with discussion of the economy.
“If that bill were partisan, it would never have passed,” said Schuller. “It focused on health benefits and emphasized a state solution. It would create clean jobs here. It would produce clean air here,” she said.
John Nielson, energy director at environmental law and policy group Western Resource Advocates– a group that worked on the Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act– told the Colorado Independent that Jackson would almost certainly take lessons learned in Colorado during the Ritter Administration to other state capitals.
“This [visit] was an opportunity for her to hear in detail how this specific emissions-reduction plan was put into effect. It demonstrates how different groups with diverse interests– the natural gas industry, environmental activists, regulators– how they could come together and find commonsense solutions to make real air-quality gains. It’s a policy success story.”
That ‘crazy left-winger Richard Nixon’
Sitting next to Ritter on the panel, Jackson demonstrated the knowledgeable and frank public speaking style that has helped make her a lightning rod during her politically fraught tenure at the EPA. To green activists frustrated by the Obama administration’s reticent approach to environmental protection, she is a champion. To conservatives targeting the EPA as a “job-killing” government office beyond the reach of citizens, she is a model of bureaucratic meddling in free-market enterprise.
“The environment is non-partisan,” Jackson said in response to a question about Washington politics. “Water flows downstream and the wind blows the same air over red states and blue states.
“It was that crazy left-winger Richard Nixon who passed bipartisan legislation to protect us by protecting the environment,” she said, referring to the hard-line conservative 1970s Republican president who signed the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. “The free market doesn’t punish polluters unless we price it. If you pollute our trout stream, you have to pay.”
Jackson railed against the heated rhetoric that issues in a steady stream from lawmaker offices and think tanks in Washington, DC– the “fact-free zone,” as she described it.
“We have to get past this idea that regulation kills jobs. Regulations should be reasonable. They need to be updated. But regulation needs to be done. Regulations set standards around which business thrives.”
Jackson pointed out that the United States leads in the environmental-protection sector, in designing and manufacturing technologies that, for example, scrub emissions and catch particulate pollution.
“Clean air in the United States is not negotiable, so we’ve created a market. Last I saw, there are 1.8 million jobs in the environmental-protection sector,” she said, noting that for years the U.S. has benefited from exporting that kind of technology abroad.
Although Jackson has clashed with the Obama administration over its decision to lift offshore drilling restrictions and reject a new smog-reducing ozone limit, she praised the administration for passing a national automobile-exhaust standard. She said that for years automakers made one kind of car for California, which has strict standards, and one kind of car for the rest of the nation.
“Now they have one kind of car to make. Automakers know the rules of the road, from now until 2025. They can innovate around that. There is certainty, which is vital. They can comply [with the new regulations] quicker and cheaper. You get the health benefits that much sooner.”
The hidden costs of dirty air
The event setting, the National Jewish Hospital, stressed the public health benefits of marrying energy and environmental policy.
National Jewish Hospital’s Professor Pacheco talked about the medical costs she sees every day at the hospital tied to Denver’s “brown cloud” smog problem.
It’s not just the members of the vulnerable populations— asthmatics, the elderly, young people— that cost the state money, it’s also their colleagues and caregivers, she said.
“You have to take time off to take your loved ones to the hospital. You have to fill in for your co-workers who get sick. We’re all paying for [pollution],” she said, adding that the costs may be hard to quantify but they’re undoubtedly high.
Jackson offered a ballpark figure. She said that, taken together, the dirtiest power plants in Colorado cost residents hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The economic benefits of policies brought about by legislation like the Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act, she said, are twofold: they create jobs and profits in the renewable-energy sector and they also eliminate the high hidden costs of pollution.
“The science is crystal clear. Pollution causes illness and death. It’s bad for your lungs. It’s bad for your pulmonary system,” Jackson said.
Pacheco added that a problem at the heart of discussions about pollution is the fact that we all live in our own professional and social nooks, so we don’t see the larger toll taken by dirty energy. You have to look at it from a wider perspective to see how it affects society, and that’s difficult for any one of us to do in our daily lives.
“That’s why it’s a political question. This is a job for political leaders,” she said.