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By Eric Stirgus October 19, 2011

Going green helps bring in green, congressman says

A recent environmental flare-up in Congress drew the ire of one Georgia representative and an opportunity to dust off the Truth-O-Meter.

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson recently used his website to voice his outrage about a bill called the TRAIN Act.

The bill passed the House of Representatives in late September with strong support by Republicans who said the act is needed to examine Obama administration environmental policies they say have resulted in higher oil, gas and coal prices. The bill, as of late last week, was in the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Johnson, a DeKalb County Democrat, said the bill would block "two of the most important, life-saving Clean Air rules in decades -- the mercury and air toxics rule and cross-state air pollution rule."

The congressman then argued it’s false to claim strong environmental regulations hurt big business and used some numbers to back up his case.

"Since 1970, the Clean Air Act has reduced toxic and health-threatening air pollution by 60 percent while our economy has grown more than 200 percent," Johnson said.

So are Johnson’s numbers correct?

The congressman’s office said the information we wanted to check came from the American Lung Association. A spokesman for the association referred us to an Environmental Protection Agency report last year that found emissions for six common pollutants had declined by 63 percent since 1970. The EPA report also found the nation’s gross domestic product has increased by 204 percent in that same time frame.

Several experts we spoke with said the EPA’s numbers were on target and had no quarrels with the federal agency’s research.

"I think [Johnson] is on point," said Lynn Goldman, dean of the George Washington University School of Health Services.

On the economic growth part of the claim, two local economics experts we interviewed thought that number was on target, too. They both looked at GDP data that was adjusted for inflation. Christine Ries, who teaches economics at Georgia Tech, said gross domestic product is the measure most commonly used to measure economic growth.

Georgia State University economics department chairwoman Sally Wallace also found no problem with the math in Johnson’s statement. She did suggest we look at per capita income to examine the second part of the congressman’s claim. The growth in that category was also above 200 percent, from $19,167 in 1970 to the 2010 per capita income of $40,584.

Johnson’s statement seems to imply that the Clean Air Act did not hurt the economy or even helped it. Wallace wasn’t sure a direct correlation can be made.

She researched GDP 10 years before the Clean Air Act passed and the 40 years since and concluded that the average annual growth was greater before 1970. "It’s kind of difficult to say it’s directly related," Wallace told us.

Two groups joined forces last year to research the economic impact of the Clean Air Act. The Small Business Majority, an advocacy group for the nation’s 28 million small businesses, and the Main Street Alliance, a national coalition of small business networks in 15 states, concluded in its 10-page report that about 1.3 million jobs were created between 1977 and 1991 as a result of environmental regulations from the Clean Air Act. Using some EPA data, they believe the Clean Air Act’s benefits far outweighed the costs. The report criticized congressional efforts to scale back the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act.

For years, as a 2001 paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research noted, manufacturers have argued whether the act puts them at a competitive disadvantage globally. The report by the widely cited think tank looked at 15 years of data and concluded that the regulations "retard industrial activity."

Johnson is correct in his statement about the Clean Air Act’s impact on pollution. The rest of his argument was aimed at countering claims that strong environmental policies hurt business. The numbers the congressman used seem to be on target, but there’s some room for debate about the Clean Air Act’s impact on the economy. We rate his statement Mostly True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson website post, Sept. 23, 2011

Telephone interview with Georgia State University economics professor Sally Wallace, Oct. 6, 2011

Email from Georgia Tech economics professor Christine Reis, Oct. 10, 2011

National Bureau of Economic Research report on Clean Air Act regulations, September 2001

Telephone interview with Lynn Goldman, dean of the George Washington University School of Health Services, Oct. 11, 2011

Telephone interview with Georgia Tech air pollution, physics and chemistry professor Ted Russell, Oct. 11, 2011

The Small Business Majority and the Main Street Alliance, "The Clean Air Act’s Economic Benefits," October 2010

U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis gross domestic product data

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air quality trends 1980-2009

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air quality trends 1970-2009

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Going green helps bring in green, congressman says

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