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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Release Date: 11/15/2011
Contact Information: EPA Press Office, press@epa.gov, 202-564-6794

As prepared for delivery.

Hello and thank you for having me here today. For an EPA Administrator, coming to Wisconsin is like coming back to the source of everything we do. It was the leadership of Gaylord Nelson and the people who supported him in this state that took a burgeoning environmental movement and translated it in the first Earth Day in 1970. And that led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency – as well as many other changes. After the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act were all passed in quick succession.

That was amazing progress in a short amount of time. The Civil Rights movement had been a high-profile movement for almost two decades. The anti-war movement had also been going for years and would continue for many more years. By contrast, the modern environmental movement went from its Inauguration in the first Earth Day to a sweeping set of new environmental protections in about six years.

People were energized at an unprecedented level. The teach-in that Gaylord Nelson proposed in 1969 resulted in 20 million people – one on every 10 Americans in those days – standing up for their health and their environment. My staff and I have been at this for almost three years and I just recently passed 13,000 Facebook fans – and I think that’s pretty good.

That rapid pace of progress speaks to something that we need to remember today, and that I will talk about later: which is that environmental and health threats are unambiguous, nonpartisan concerns. They affect us whether we live in a red state or a blue state. Contrary to more divisive issues, people of all backgrounds want swift action when they see these threats in their communities. This movement got started when it became clear that the forces of the market were not going to be enough to stop Los Angeles from becoming the smog capital of the world, or prevent situations like the Santa Barbara oil spill and burning pollution the Cuyahoga River Fire.

The American people demanded a new mechanism for preventing pollution. The EPA was created and a suite of environmental laws was passed so that government could set and enforce standards. That was a bipartisan effort. The EPA was created by Richard Nixon – as everyone knows, a Republican. Its first Administrator was a Republican, and many of the great advances that have happened over the years have happened with bipartisan support.

When I came into this job in 2009, my ambition was – in the face of a new generation of environmental challenges – to facilitate advances like what we saw in the early 1970s. And to do so with the same kind of bipartisan support. I’m proud to be part of an EPA that has mobilized science and the law to create modern and innovative protections for the health of the American people. I’m also proud to be working for a president who has said that “we can’t wait” on these issues.

We came into office during a historic economic crisis. It would have been easy to tell the EPA to sit and wait. But President Obama knows that the choice between our economy and our environment is a false choice – and he directed us to hit the ground running.

One of our earliest steps was to resume work on the endangerment finding on greenhouse gases. This is the first administration to officially recognize that greenhouse gases pose a threat to our health and welfare, and to take action under the Clean Air Act to address that threat. We also took swift steps to institute national fuel economy standards that save drivers money and cut carbon pollution. President Obama called that “the single most important step we’ve ever taken as a nation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.” It has also given clarity to the American auto industry, which can invest in the innovations – and workers – to build the most fuel-efficient vehicles in our history. Last year both Chrysler and General Motors announced plans to hire 1,000 workers – each – to develop fuel-efficient vehicles.

We’ve also taken long overdue steps to limit mercury pollution from power plants; invested in water infrastructure and community cleanups; we’ve taken steps to support innovative products like biofuels that Great Lakes Bioenergy is working on, or the cutting edge water technology being developed not far from here in Milwaukee; and we’ve instituted historic efforts to protect America’s waters. That includes setting a new standard for care in the Great Lakes and ensuring a strong future for those vital waters.

Unfortunately, many of these advances, as well as many of our fundamental environmental protections, are under threat. Since the beginning of this year, Republican leadership in the House of Representatives has orchestrated 170 votes against environmental protection. That is almost a vote for every day the chamber has been in session to undermine the Environmental Protection Agency and our nation's environmental laws. Much of this has happened in response to myths and misleading information.

One example is an assertion made by lobbying and industry groups that the EPA is putting forward a “train wreck” of regulations that will hobble our economy. That claim has been repeated in major news outlets and on the floor of Congress. In fact, one of the bills restricting clean air protections was named “The TRAIN Act.” The claim is founded on an American Legislative Executive Council report that details regulations the EPA never actually proposed.

You may have heard that EPA intends to triple its budget and add 230,000 new regulators to cut greenhouse gas emissions from sources like cows and backyard grills. In truth, we put forward a “Tailoring Rule” months ago – a commonsense plan to tailor greenhouse standards to exempt small sources, like local businesses, from regulations. A massive expansion was never a possibility – and the people citing the 230,000 figure know it. That number comes from an administration document explaining why the Tailoring Rule is necessary.

To be fair to my colleagues in Washington, they’re not getting a whole lot of help. Some of you may have seen not long ago a Wall St. Journal op-ed, written by a long-time climate denier who performed a comprehensive study on the data he cast doubt on. After years of denial and skepticism, he looked at the data. His conclusion was, and I quote, “Global warming is real.” Contrary to the “climategate” scandal over emails from a handful of researchers – which was covered often on major news networks – the conversion of a key climate-denier, and the affirmation of the science got most of its attention in a short segment on The Daily Show.

You begin to see why we are witnessing an unprecedented effort to rollback the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and our nation's waste-disposal laws; to see why, less than three years after a coal ash spill that covered 300 acres of Tennessee country the House majority passed legislation preventing EPA from regulating coal ash. You see why, less than two years after the Deepwater Horizon BP spill, the best idea industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute have for creating jobs is to de-regulate drilling. And you see how, after the second-hottest summer on record, followed by a foot of late-October snow on the East Coast and the reversal of a leading climate skeptic, people are still working to stop the EPA from taking vital steps to cut carbon pollution.

We all remember "too big to fail"; this pseudo jobs plan to protect polluters might well be called "too dirty to fail." How we respond will mean the difference between sickness and health — in some cases, life and death — for hundreds of thousands of people. That is not hyperbole. Mercury is a neurotoxin that affects brain development in unborn children and young people. Lead has similar effects. Nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds contribute to the ozone alert days when seniors, asthmatics and people with respiratory problems are at serious risk if they do nothing more dangerous than step outside and breathe the air.

“Too dirty to fail” puts our nation into what President Obama calls a “race to the bottom” for the weakest health protections and the most loopholes in our environmental policies. For those of you born after 1970, it would be the first time in your lives that the health and environmental protections you grew up with are not steadily improved, but deliberately weakened. The result will be more asthma, more respiratory illness and more premature deaths. What there won’t be is any clear path to new jobs.

We have seen 200 percent growth in our GDP over the 40 years of EPA’s existence. After all that time and all that growth, it is clear that we can have a clean environment and a growing economy. No credible economist links our current economic crisis – or any economic crisis – to clean-air and clean-water standards. Just last week, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research demonstrated that when ozone in the air was reduced by 10 parts per billion, outdoor farm workers increased their productivity by 4.2 percent. That kind of reduction nationwide could mean $1.1 billion in economic benefits for the agricultural sector of our economy.

A story in the Washington Post yesterday quoted economists who said that the effect of government regulations on jobs is minimal. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data that is collected from business executives, only 0.3 percent of layoffs in 2010 were because of “government regulations/intervention.” That story even quoted the chief executive of American Electric Power Co – one of the largest coal-based utilities in the nation – saying that when regulations require pollution control technology, AEP has to hire plumbers, electricians and others. His words were, “Jobs are created in the process – no question about that.” An AEP plant in Conesville, Ohio employed 1,000 temporary workers installing pollution controls, and created 40 permanent jobs to operate and maintain that technology.

As for the notion that eliminating regulation equals a plan for job creation, a former economist from the Reagan White House recently said of that idea – and I quote – “It's just nonsense. It's just made up.” A strategy to grow our economy by simply doing less is not sufficient to the challenges we face. President Obama has directed federal agencies to review regulations to eliminate unnecessary burdens for businesses and ensure that vital health protections remain intact. But that is not the beginning and end of our plan. The President also sent the American Jobs Act to congress, proposing investments in teachers and first responders. That bill also contains provisions for an Infrastructure Bank that would put $10 billion into transportation, energy and water infrastructure – creating jobs that strengthen the foundations of our economy.

We also know that smart regulations can lead to new jobs. As the CEO of AEP indicated in the Washington Post, we can put Americans to work retrofitting outdated, dirty plants with updated pollution control technology. There are about 1,100 coal-fired units across the country, and more than 40 percent do not use pollution controls to limit emissions. The nation's first-ever standards for mercury and other pollutants from power plants – that EPA will finalize no later than December 16 – are estimated to create 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 long-term jobs through modernizing power plants. Those jobs come with health benefits estimated as high as $140 billion per year by 2016.

Looking back 20 years after the first Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson wrote in a letter to The Wilderness Society that, quote, “The purpose of Earth Day was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and, finally, force this issue permanently into the political arena.”

Today we need that same nationwide concern mobilized to pull these issues out of the political gridlock of the day. We saw a glimmer of hope last week when the Senate overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to stop EPA from implementing a rule that will protect more than 200 million Americans. They affirmed that protecting health is nonpartisan – something that unites us across our divisions.

But there are still two visions competing right now for the future of our environment and our economy. One says that we can rely on science, the law and innovation to protect our health and the environment and grow a clean, sustainable economy. The alternative vision says that moving forward requires rolling back standards for clean air and clean water. It says we have to increase protection for big polluters while reducing safeguards for the rest of us.

After 40 years of progress, the American people still believe in the first vision. A majority of Americans believe the economic and health benefits of clean air rules outweigh costs. More than half of Republican voters recently said they oppose a Congressional proposal to stop the EPA from enacting new limits on air pollution from power plants. More than three-quarters of Americans support new EPA standards for mercury and air toxics.

Just like back in 1970, we need your help. Students, parents, educators and young people have always driven the environmental movement. You can once again answer those who claim that our success is served by eliminating longstanding health protections and turning our future over to big polluters. It is time to stop politicizing our air and water and put an end to “Too Dirty to Fail.” We are going to continue to count on talented, dedicated people from places like this University to be part of that effort. Thank you very much.