Is There a Conflict Between Environmental Protection and Economic Growth? Could Be.

It’s now de rigueur to say that there is no conflict between a healthy economy and a healthy environment. President-elect Obama said so himself as recently as December 15, when he introduced members of his environmental and energy team. Certainly, in a perfect world, where information is free and everyone agrees on the economic value to be placed on protecting environmental interests, that would be true as a matter of definition.

Unfortunately, we live in the real world and in the real world, there are often trade-offs to be made between economic growth and environmental protection. This critical tension was brought home last week, when news broke that Governor Schwarzenegger was seeking to expedite, and have the authority to waive, certain environmental reviews for infrastructure projects deemed critical to economic stimulus efforts. Among other authorities, Governor Schwarzenegger – who has been a leading figure in state efforts to fight climate change – wants to exempt a dozen highway projects from environmental reviews and to create a three person “super-Cabinet” that would have authority to waive environmental reviews on other projects. He has also suggested that federal NEPA review be waived for any project funded as part of a federal stimulus package.

Environmentalists, of course, are having none of it. Tina Andolina, of the California Planning and Conservation League, called the Governor’s plan’s “ridiculous.” But are they? Anyone involved in any kind of development project, whether highway or mass transit or power generating – or even schools or low income housing – knows that environmental reviews can slow such projects by months or even years. In fairness to the environmental review process, that’s part of the purpose – to make certain that projects aren’t developed without careful consideration of their impacts.

However, everyone seems to agree that we are in the midst of an extraordinary time. President-elect Obama has himself said that prompt economic stimulus is critical, in order to avoid an even worse economic crisis. A substantial part of the stimulus plan is for infrastructure projects that every thinking person must acknowledge could conceivably have adverse environmental impacts. What if it simply isn’t possible both to thoroughly assess those impacts and get the projects started sufficiently quickly to have the stimulus that everyone agrees is needed?

Given the dire state of the economy, I’d certainly err on the side of facilitating projects, but I’m sure that some of my readers would disagree. 

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