Hey, EPA, What Does a Little Cancer Matter When We Have Drilling to Do?

I had a big light-bulb moment this morning while reading both daily newspapers. We just price things wrong. We need to stop thinking of clean air in terms of dollars and cents and start quantifying it in our heads by cancer cases.

Governor Rick Perry keeps telling us that EPA clean air rules are costing us jobs, meaning money, and he has a certain case. If Texas had no rules at all and industries here were free to blast really bad black smoke out their chimneys, maybe a lot of industries would move here from other places. We might even recruit some of the steel industry back from China.

That's the money way of looking at it. But what about the cancer way?

Any time you see a Randy Lee Loftis byline in The Dallas Morning News, you need to stop and give it a read, because this guy is one of the best environmental reporters anywhere -- definitely a must-read dude. Loftis has a pay-walled story in the paper today about a hearing in Arlington yesterday where the oil and gas polluters gathered to kvetch about new EPA clean air standards.

Toward the bottom of that piece, Loftis provides the basis for my proposed pricing structure. He says actual nationwide emissions right now are causing 40 cancer cases in every one million population. But the rules in place now -- the old ones -- would allow industry to amp that up to 400 cancer cases per million. I assume that's when the economy comes back and happy days are here again.

Proposed new rules -- the ones Perry says are job-killers -- would hold the future cancer price of emissions somewhere closer to the current 40-per-million range.

Then you have to read The New York Times today, too. They have a story about Perry's war on the EPA. The piece quotes him in Florida this month: "Somebody has to tell the EPA that we don't need you monkeying around and fiddling around and getting in our business with every kind of regulation you can dream up."

But OMG. The same story has a graphic showing Texas air pollution compared with the rest of the United States, and we're way up at the top, way up -- imagine me stretching one hand as high as I can go and then jumping up higher to show you -- above everybody except California, which has worse ozone than we do.

So here is all I am suggesting. It's fair to debate the issue. What are we going to do about it? Who should make the decisions? And what's the price?

Measuring the price in jobs seems wrong-headed. What's the real bottom line here? Wouldn't most people be better able to quantify the risk and assess it logically if we posed it in terms of how many cancer cases we're willing to tolerate?

Hey, the answer can't be zero. I think we all recognize that. For our state to prosper and people to be able to afford nice things and drive to church on Sunday, somebody must get cancer. Right? Somebody's got to take a bullet. But how many bullets for how many somebodies? And who? Somebody you know?

Maybe if we thought of things this way, it would allow us to focus more closely on particular types of cancers associated with particular types of air pollution and specific populations. That way we could calibrate.

I would think we would want to aim our cancer bullets away from the kids and more toward mature populations who've already had a life. But that's just me. And, after all, I do recognize we'd be shooting at the Tea Party that way.

But think: If we measured air pollution this way, wouldn't that give the right-to-lifers something more to think about? Does the right to life include the right not to die of cancer caused by air pollution? Maybe not. What do I know? I've always been more of a damn-lucky-to-still-be-alive-er myself. But it's something to talk about.

The guy who could really do something with it might be Perry. He could show up at these debates and cock that cowboy smile at the camera and say, "I'm gonna git 'Merica lined up like we do in Texas and get that cancer rate back up where she belongs."

Listen, there may be a huge constituency out there that wants to see us get that cancer per million rate way up higher than it is. Shoot for the moon! Are the Chinese beating us on this? How do we know unless we at least start the conversation?

All I'm saying: Think about it.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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