Protecting environment good for the economy

Posted: Thursday, December 11, 2003

They've got a deaf ear out for environmentalists but can President Bush and governors bent on stripping and paving the American West ignore our nation's leading economists?

We might soon find out.

This week, 104 experts in the "dismal science," including a couple of Nobel Prize winners, wrote to the White House and to Western governors with a warning: Policies that harm the environment can, in the long run, harm the economy, too.

The letter is largely a response to politicians who go around telling folks that workers, employers and communities involved in environmentally harmful business could go on making messes if it weren't for those darn clean-air, clean-water and endangered-species laws.

Al contrario, say the economists; even if those laws were repealed or otherwise nullified, "the costs of environmentally harmful activities will continue to rise and jeopardize the economic outlook for affected communities."

They note that the economic importance of old-West industries agriculture, logging, mining, even commercial fishing has diminished. Many of the jobs are gone, and the pay's not much for those remaining.

As ecosystems are degraded, the group says, they're less able to do what Mother Nature once did to maintain a clean environment; water treatment, for example. Next thing Western communities know, they're spending money on treatment plants.

So government with our tax money subsidizes those private enterprises, making their operating costs artificially low. The assaults on nature continue, and reversing the trend becomes all the more costly and difficult.

Yet the politicians make much of what jobs these environmentally destructive industries offer, while doing little to make them lighten their footprint on the fragile West.

Richard Nixon had no trouble seeing the capitalistic advantages to environmental protection. He established the Environmental Protection Agency and signed some of America's most important conservation laws. Many Western Republicans have bridled over environmental protection. Instead, they should take a hard look at the contributions of the loudest-complaining industries to their state's economies, as compared with tourism as well as industries being recruited for their high-paying jobs and low environmental impact.

One of New Mexico's old-boy industries, at least, has been seeking ways of easing its burden on the land, sky and water of our state: This fall, Public Service Company of New Mexico launched a "green energy" initiative. Our state's biggest power company, long dependent on coal-burning steam generators, opened a wind-turbine operation down near Fort Sumner. On a voluntary basis, customers have been asked if they'll pay an extra $1.80 a month for each block of renewable energy on top of the $8.50 they're already paying for that amount.

PNM figured it would be lucky to see 20 businesses and 850 residential customers sign up this year. Already, 38 businesses and 3,400 residences are on the list all of them making a conscious decision in favor of the environment.

When demand for wind power exceeds the 204 megawatts being spun by the 136 propeller towers, PNM promises to put up more of them.

In time, the power company and our state's Public Regulation Commission must ask themselves why the surcharge is necessary. But wind power and other renewable energy must undergo more technological progress before it becomes cheaper than the smokestack-and-long-lines variety.

Still, it's a start and a good one.

As the politician-nudging economists make clear, industry and environment can coexist the more peacefully, the more prosperously in times to come.

The New Mexican

Dec. 5

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