Whatever his other qualities, outgoing White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley seemed to understand that punitive environmental policies entail tradeoffs. When one environmentalist explained the health risks of increased air pollutants, Daley asked, rhetorically, “What are the health impacts of unemployment?”
That sense that the economic damage wrought by environmental regulation must not be ignored has been sorely missing from the president’s economic policies (though Daley reportedly tempered the president’s knee-jerk regulatory agenda). With him gone, the president is reverting to his old “have your cake and eat it too” approach to environmental regulation.
“We don’t have to choose” between a strong economy and strong environmental regulations, Obama insisted during a speech at the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday. Leaving aside for a moment the issue of whether increased regulations will actually produce cleaner air or water, on a host of issues, that dichotomy has been very real, whether or not Obama acknowledges it, and he has consistently backed stronger environmental regulations over sound economic policies.
The clearest example is the Keystone XL pipeline. The administration’s delays have imperiled thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in economic activity. The president says it could imperil aquifers in the area, but has yet to explain why the multitude of other pipelines passing through the same aquifer would not. So while he toes the environmentalist line, the economic damage continues, and our water supply is no safer for it.
This was the same mentality that drove the administration’s Gulf oil drilling permatorium. The administration did a body blow to the Gulf states’ economies precisely when they could afford it least. Again, the president cited environmental cleanliness, but “all of the operators in the Gulf [don't] need to be shut down because there was a mistake on one rig,” as New Orleans native, and owner of oilfield equipment company R&D Enterprises, Leslie Bertucci put it. “To me it’s the most irresponsible decision that could have possibly been made.”
Now the administration has implemented yet another permatorium, this one on uranium mining in the Colorado River Basin. The Interior Department issued a ban on new mining operations there, though it will allow already-permitted operations to continue. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar cited environmental concerns, but not economic ones, in touting the move.
Regardless of the supposed environmental benefits, less uranium mining will mean less economic activity. The president doesn’t seem to understand, as Bill Daley did, that these tradeoffs are unavoidable. Or he does understand it, and the “we can have both” rhetoric is simply posturing.