Time for the power sector to get to work

John Arensmeyer

By John Arensmeyer, Small Business Majority, and Mindy Lubber, Ceres

The word on the street is the recession is behind us, but times are still tough. The economy is stagnant and businesses of all sizes are still trying to weather the economic storm that forced many to close their doors and left countless workers unemployed.

For these reasons, every other word out of politicians’ mouths is “jobs,” and how we can protect them and create more. Unfortunately, the rhetoric has reached a fever pitch and “job killing” labels are put on everything from tax cuts to sensible standards that protect our communities and us.

This has happened with new standards announced Dec. 21 that would protect Americans from breathing mercury, lead, arsenic, and acid gases from outdated power plants. Twenty years in the making, these new standards are finally moving into the implementation phase, though there will likely be pushback from some claiming they’ll stifle job growth. That opposition is misguided. In fact, the new rules will create jobs and are supported by Americans and business owners—also known as job creators—across the political spectrum.

A recent Small Business Majority poll found that small business owners’ greatest concern is economic uncertainty about the future, with 46 percent citing it as their top worry. Only 13 percent of small business owners said government regulation is their biggest concern.

If we are to tackle what is really worrying small business owners—economic uncertainty—we should encourage actions that spur economic growth. Allowing the Environmental Protection Agency the ability to regulate harmful emissions such as toxics from power plants is something small business owners believe will do just that.

Small Business Majority’s national poll found 76 percent of small employers support the EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, refineries and other major emitters. Adding to that is a recent poll by Ceres—a coalition of businesses, investors, and public-interest groups—that found 77 percent of Americans specifically support the newly announced limits on lead, mercury and other toxic emissions that are being released from power plants.

Those standards—known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards—will require power companies to clean up or close their dirtiest, oldest plants, including many built more than half a century ago.

The nation’s utilities will still earn an appropriate return on their investments. Meanwhile, the EPA estimates that new rules will pay back $5 to $13 in health benefits for every dollar power companies spend in complying, so broader communities will benefit, as well.

What’s more, a recent report by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts found the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard is part of a suite of clean-air standards that will create 1.4 million new jobs over the next five years. These include professional positions, construction and manufacturing jobs, for both large and small companies, from the suppliers’ manufacturing centers all the way to the actual construction sites.

For example, retrofitting a coal-fired power plant with $200 million worth of air pollution control equipment would result in 2,200 jobs, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many of those jobs go to local companies, who supply the concrete services, the excavation and demolition work, or the cranes and trucks. These benefits ripple further through local economies when workers spend their wages.

It’s time that power companies do their part. Other major contributors to mercury-air pollution—including medical and municipal incinerators—have already reduced their emissions, cutting mercury by 95 percent since 1990. And steel and cement makers have also made great strides.

America and its job creators are behind the new power plant rules, and the EPA has acted. Now it’s time to get to work.