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Ohio forsakes progress on clean air and water

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/29/15 @ 2:45pm  |  Posted in Clean energy, Clean air, Clean water

In Ohio, the news lately is filled with stories that pit industry against the environment. But the storylines, and the accounting of costs, are often more complicated.

Take, for example, the New York Times story last Friday on “The Connection Between Cleaner Air and Longer Lives." Economics professor and head of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, Michael Greenstone runs the numbers on how many “life years” were saved by the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970. Clevelanders alone, he estimates, have gained 2.3 more years of life—thanks to President Nixon approving the landmark environmental legislation. (Youngstown residents gained 3.4 years of life). That doesn’t include the quality of life dividend where less smog translates to fewer cases of asthma, chronic breathing problems, and birth defects to name a few of the known impacts of “particulate matter” in air.

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And, yet, a myth persists that environmental regulations are too costly.

Or the story concerning too many chemicals—from Toledo area farms to Cleveland area lawns —washing into Lake Erie. Tourism business has dropped by 25% since Toledo was forced to shut off its tap water in 2014 and the return this summer of the toxic algae blooms. A tourism official in Toledo this week compared the impact of the Lake Erie crisis on the very livelihood of a $12.5 billion tourism industry in Northern Ohio to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He said people are scared to swim at the beach and recreational fishermen are canceling charters in droves.

The persistence of phosphorous in fertilizers makes the Gulf spill an interesting comparison. Both have a clearly defined culprit, and damage to one industry from another is significant.

Thankfully, this story can have a happy ending. For starters, the federal government is taking the problem seriously, as evidenced by a $5 million grant to reduce phosphorous running off of farms in Northern Ohio. But, what else should we read about our own culpability in the Lake Erie story?

Environmental stories do not run in a straight line. Take the water story. The Clean Water Act, which Nixon also passed in 1970, was so effective in cleaning up the industries that were polluting the lake and (the burning) Cuyahoga River that water quality was almost a non-issue until the Toledo water crisis. While the Cuyahoga is still listed as an Area of Concern, a group monitoring its health recently discovered a walleye, a fish rarely spotted in the industrial river, and perhaps a marker of how a river can restore to good health.

The last notable news story is the renewable and energy efficiency standards “freeze” in Ohio. The state had bi-partisan support when it passed its Advanced Energy Portfolio Standard in 2008, but the power industry in 2014 was able to convince lawmakers to put their interests ahead of others, including manufacturers who opposed the freeze. The decision was costly. The Toledo Blade ran a story a year after the freeze and found that millions of dollars of renewable energy business has been chased out of the state.

The story this week is the General Assembly and the Governor are considering whether the renewables sector are worth giving up for the utilities’ desire to burn coal a little longer. Report have the GA permanently freezing Ohio’s renewable and energy efficiency standard. It shows a shocking lack of faith in Ohio’s 89,000 jobs in that sector.

Policy Matters Ohio wrote: “Since the sun and wind are an unlimited resource, the more we invest in the technology to capture it, the cheaper and more efficient it will get. The future of energy, unfettered by special interests, portends solar on every rooftop. Imagine all the roofing jobs created to install solar on rooftops all across Ohio.

An interesting historical footnote: a story circulated last week about energy companies’ about face on climate change. They uncovered scientific reports from the 1970s and 80s paid for by Exxon that accepted a future where fossil fuels were too costly to burn.

What will convince the executives and their shareholders that burning coal is a cost they will bear in the future in millions of reduced years of life?

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