Politicizing The Green Debate


Originally posted 07/05/2011 07:10 PM ET
Investor’s Business Daily
There’s a troubling irony in today’s vigorous debate about environmental policy. Some of the most vocal groups clamoring for a cleaner planet are also the ones stalling progress toward that same goal.

A closer look at contemporary interest-group politics reveals why this is the case.

Republicans and Democrats both desire cleaner air and water. As policymakers we debate the best way to achieve these goals, balancing environmental progress with economic costs.

We consider and weigh multiple objectives: grow jobs, expand the economy and protect the planet. While not always agreeing on the means, we share the same aspirations.

But some environmental groups have narrower purposes. All private lobbying organizations do. After all, that’s why they are called “special interests.”

And these special interests are operating in an increasingly competitive lobbying realm in Washington — a world where getting on the agenda often requires hefty financial resources and clever political strategies.

These realities not only shape their tactics, but also slow real progress toward cleaner air and water. Today’s environmental lobby produces gridlock and hardened positions in Congress rather than common ground. That’s because they frame issues in extreme terms to capture attention in an increasingly competitive policy and media environment.

Given the sluggish pace of the economic recovery, stubbornly high unemployment, today’s massive federal debt crisis and the ongoing controversy about health care, it’s difficult for the environmental lobby to get attention. Moreover, today’s fragmented media culture of blogs, online publications and cable news only adds to the environmental lobby’s woes.

We live in a world with “a surplus of information and a deficit of attention,” as one political strategist described it recently. How do you break through? Using hyperbolic language is one way. That’s why bipartisan legislation to block controversial and costly green house gas rules is called “dismantling the Clean Air Act.”

Even though the Environmental Protection Agency has said carbon and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) do not have any direct health effects on illnesses like asthma, lobbying groups like the American Lung Association charge that failing to regulate GHGs will cause a cascade of sickness.

What’s worse, these groups solicit and receive millions of federal dollars to spread their misleading messages. These tactics are intended to produce media hype and provocative headlines, not tell the truth.

Here’s an example from my home state. Last year a faulty oil pipeline ruptured in southwest Michigan, spilling more than 20,000 barrels of crude into the Kalamazoo River.

This unacceptable tragedy underscored the need for significant updates to our current pipeline safety regulations, which my committee plans to undertake this year.

Instead of coming to the table with constructive ideas, these groups are using this disaster to foment opposition to the Canadian Keystone Pipeline project, which promises to create 100,000 jobs and reduce our dependence on oil from hostile nations by 1 million barrels a day.

Creating threatening foils also boosts interest group fundraising.

Environmental lobbyists know that stoking fear is the best way to put money in their bank accounts. Generating a good vs. evil narrative that creates a caricature of business barbarians at the gate motivates environmental donors.

Over the past two years, the EPA has released an unprecedented fusillade of regulations aimed at controlling a range of criteria pollutants (SOx, NOx) and GHGs. At the same time it has proposed regulations to clamp down on utilities, industrial boilers, cement manufacturers and more.

Again, Republicans and Democrats alike would like to see steady progress toward reducing pollution from all these sources with common sense, balanced policies.

But the extreme environmental lobby has its own ideological agenda. They demand we do it all now and in the most extreme way possible — irrespective of practicality or cost to jobs and the economy.

Some claim it’s literally impossible to meet all the simultaneous demands made by the environmental lobby given the current level of raw materials and vendors.

From an economic standpoint, it’s too much at once. Many Americans understand this reality and support a positive, balanced approach to steady progress.

But fewer people grasp the political implications of the environmental lobby’s demands: They result in system overload, which in turn produces gridlock.

The tactics of environmental interest groups shatter any hope of finding common ground.

They are divisive, shrill, disingenuous and inaccurate. They halt progress toward the goal of a steadily improving environment, because they are more intent on inflaming and distorting the public debate and filling their organizations’ coffers than steadily and practically advancing toward a cleaner environment. It is ironic and sad, but unfortunately the truth.

Upton, a Republican, represents Michigan’s 6th congressional district and is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.