Dutifully following their tea party scripts, most of the Republican presidential candidates have declared war on the Environmental Protection Agency. They claim that the economy is being smothered by regulations designed to keep our air and water safe.
No evidence is being offered, and in fact the record profits of big energy companies indicate a spectacular lack of suffering.
But read the promise Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., made to an Iowa crowd: "I guarantee you the EPA will have doors locked and lights turned off, and they will only be about conservation. It will be a new day and a new sheriff in Washington, D.C."
Like Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry refuses to accept that global warming is real. He launched a lawsuit to stop the EPA from enacting rules to limit greenhouse gases from oil refineries, power plants and other industrial sources.
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Perry likes to whine that "EPA regulations are killing jobs all across America," a statement that draws more cheers in his native state than in the rest of the country. In fact, polls show that a large majority of Americans are worried about air and water pollution, and hold a positive view of the EPA.
Nothing kills jobs like an environmental catastrophe, as the Gulf Coast gravely experienced during (and after) the BP oil spill last year. The true cost of that accident to the economies of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida is probably incalculable, although surely many billions of dollars were lost.
Forty-one years ago the EPA was formed, and for good reason: Toxins by the ton were being flagrantly pumped into this country's rivers, bays and oceans, and blown through smokestacks into the air. People were getting sick and dying only because some companies were too greedy to spend money cleaning up their own messes.
The corporate mentality toward pollution has changed because the alternatives are heavy fines, criminal penalties and savage publicity. A reminder of why we still need the EPA was last month's oil spill on the Yellowstone River, which affected ranchers, farmers, fishing guides and rafting companies. It also occurred seven months after Exxon Mobil insisted that its pipeline would never rupture because it was buried too deep.
Of all the reasons government exists, none is more crucial than trying to keep its citizens safe, whether from a terrorist attack, Wall Street's recklessness or industrial poisoning.
How, then, to explain the radical hostility of Bachmann, Perry, Newt Gingrich and some of the other Republican candidates?
First, it's about raising money. The petroleum and coal conglomerates are huge GOP donors, and they'd love to have a president who would gut the EPA.
Second, it's about politics. To win Republican primaries — the theory goes — a candidate must fire up the right wing. The easiest way to do that is to brainlessly bash whatever government does.
Unlike most of the other candidates, Mitt Romney says the EPA has an important role, and he has conceded that global warming is a fact. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney expressed interest in a carbon cap-and-trade program, and proposed a plan to cut back on greenhouse-gas emissions. But with the primaries looming, Romney now says he opposes regulating carbon dioxide.
Meanwhile, Perry and Bachmann would like us to kindly forget about last year's little mishap in the Gulf of Mexico, and other man-made though preventable disasters.
It's easier to ignore the past and stick to the script, especially if someone else is writing it.