Regulations don’t kill jobs as much as shift them around. That doesn’t mean rules can’t cause pain locally. But an ill-advised rollback of regulations likely wouldn’t create many jobs, though it would increase dangers to health and the planet.
For almost a century, the Asarco copper smelter sat on the tide flats of Commencement Bay, providing hundreds of jobs and spewing toxic chemicals into the air, soil and water.
While jobs at the smelter paid well — it became unionized in 1914 — few Americans today would want such dangerous work. Tacomans complained about the smell and the damage caused by emissions to their property, crops and animals.
When the smelter closed in 1985, Asarco blamed the Environmental Protection Agency and its rules. The shelter’s demise seemed emblematic of “job-killing regulations.”
This story has a few holes, however.
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For one thing, the EPA had been around for 15 years; likewise, the Clean Air Act, although strengthened by amendments in 1970 and 1977, had originally been passed in 1963.
In fact, the domestic copper industry had too much smelter capacity and was facing competition from newer, integrated plants overseas. The Commencement Bay smelter was old and ASARCO opened a new one in Arizona with state-of-the-art pollution controls. This made the Tacoma smelter redundant. It became even less economical by the loss of its main business, smelting contaminated copper concentrates from foreign countries.
These factors, more than regulations, killed the smelter.
While the costs of decades ofdamage to health and property near the smelter can’t be calculated, they had to be substantial, not least to workers. After the closing, the plant’s 67 acres were designated a Superfund site because of dangerous levels of lead and arsenic. Both are linked to cancer and other health hazards.
Thanks to what was once the world’s largest smokestack, the smelter’s highest levels of toxins were spread across 1,000 square miles in four counties.
The cleanup is still with us — and so are politicians complaining about “job-killing regulations.”
President Trump is chief among them. This past week, he rescinded President Barack Obama’s signature executive orders aimed at limiting the damage of fossil fuels, especially coal, which are responsible for climate-changing greenhouse gases.
Surrounded by (all white) miners, Trump declared an end to “the war on coal.”
Unfortunately, coal’s biggest antagonists are still in the war: ever-cheaper natural gas and renewable energy such as solar. And they are still winning. Another antagonist in the war on mining jobs didn’t get the executive order, either: automation.
These factors, more than Obama, hurt coal employment. The dirty victory parade should be postponed — except for the fossil-fuel moguls destined to grow even richer.
Coal mining accounted for a bit more than 50,000 jobs in February. That’s far below the peak of 863,000, but that was in 1923. Far more coal jobs were lost in the 1980s and 1990s than in recent years.
Trump’s so-called logic that more emissions mean a better economy also doesn’t track. A report last year by the Brookings Institution showed no such connection. Most states are “decoupling” economic growth from emissions. Washington state’s economy grew by 29 percent from 2000 to 2014 while its emissions declined by about 13 percent.
Still, it would be wrong to say that regulations don’t affect jobs. The preponderance of scholarly work indicates that they can eliminate jobs in localities, even though little evidence exists that they kill jobs in the national economy. One big reason is that regulation also creates jobs, such as those in new technologies and cleanup of polluted sites.
In a less divided nation, the debate would be on where to set the balance. On the one side are concerns about jobs and on the other, concerns about public health or other matters being regulated. Nearly everyone could agree that regulations that don’t deliver their promised benefits should be modified or scrapped.
Thus, even in the relatively polarized 1980s, President Ronald Reagan could complain about “job-killing regulations” and still preside over the EPA as the Commencement Bay smelter was closed.
But our country is more divided than it has been in decades. Trump did not win the popular vote, yet he claims a mandate for radical change. He is staffing his Cabinet and regulatory agencies with ideologues who do not believe the settled science about climate change.
They fervently believe in much less regulation in every area of the economy, with little or no discussion of public health or what economists call “externalities,” the costs that are hidden but nevertheless real. Climate change’s potential destruction of the northern Pacific fishery comes to mind.
And Trump has a zealous base among the white working class, whose votes made the difference for him in the Electoral College.
So how far would they be willing to go? Repeal the Nixon administration, too (the era that created the EPA and the Clean Water Act and the stronger Clean Air Act)? We’re going to find out.
The end game doesn’t require the return of child labor or elimination of all health and safety laws. Agencies might not be eliminated at all. It would be more profitable for regulated industries to have weakened and malleable watchdogs.
That is unlikely, however, to result in more jobs for the white working class or resentful small-business owners.
The Trump-Republican agenda is heavily weighted toward the very rich and the “freedom” to create monopolies, cartels and more limits on worker bargaining power. The results won’t even answer the question about regulatory balance and common sense.
All is not lost. Gov. Jay Inslee and other blue-state chief executives are determined to continue progress on limiting emissions.
And on the same day Trump announced his executive order to end “the war on coal,” Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer, said it would get all its electricity from renewables by 2025.
I’ll drink to that.