America’s environmental movement has become so big and diverse that it is tripping over its own goals — so much so that the resulting confusion is slowing efforts to deal with global warming. For instance, many environmentalists want to tear down climate-friendly hydro-electric dams because they interfere with the passage of spawning fish. Others have undermined the outlook for another climate-friendly technology, nuclear power, by questioning the environmental impact of nuclear-waste storage in Nevada. And then there are the burdensome new federal regulations on wind-power farms, designed to protect endangered bats and birds from turbine blades.
It turns out that if awareness of mankind’s impact on the earth is sufficiently fine-tuned, then virtually any manifestation of civilization is cause for concern. That’s bad news for President Obama, whose re-election depends on accelerating recovery from the recent recession without alienating the millions of environmentalists in his electoral base. Whatever you may think about the administration’s decision to delay the Keystone pipeline between Canadian oil fields and Gulf Coast refineries while environmental impacts are sorted out, it starkly illustrates how job creation can collide with the defense of nature.
Keystone is emblematic of the way in which environmentalism is making it hard for America’s economy to grow. Just yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported how opposition to an open-pit iron mine in northern Wisconsin was dooming efforts to preserve jobs there; some locals fear the mine might be harmful to the environment around their rural community, but without jobs that the mine would create, it isn’t clear the community will even be there much longer. Environmental concerns are the main reason why a German company has been blocked from building a big cement plant in North Carolina, why mining equipment couldn’t reach Canada’s tar sands from a West Coast port in the U.S., and why the world’s largest rare-earth mine in California shut down. An examination of the particulars in each of these cases reveals that big economic investments are being impeded by very modest environmental problems — problems that are often hypothetical and subjective in nature, rather than tangible and serious.
Just last week, I heard a senior Pentagon official say it was dangerous to shut down under-utilized federal industrial facilities such as foundries, because once shut they would be impossible to re-open due to environmental restrictions. It probably isn’t a coincidence that China now out-produces America in steel ten-to-one, and has been able to construct nearly half of all the world’s aluminum smelting capacity over the last 20 years. Nobody in the U.S. wants an environment like China’s, but it sure would be nice to have the Middle Kingdom’s growth rate. Environmental extremism has helped give Americans a country that is remarkably free of both pollution and job creation. Perhaps the time has come to find a path forward where the laudable desire to protect nature isn’t at war with the desire to pass on the American dream to our kids.
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