Debate continues over environmental costs

November 01, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Does environmental control cost jobs, or create them?

Environmentalists and industrialists have been clashing over this question since the dawn of the ecology movement on Earth Day 1970, and voters listening to this year's presidential debates heard conflicting answers.

But some people believe the presidential candidates overlooked one trend in their debates: As the environmental goods and services industry boomed in the last decade, it created thousands of jobs and a market that may be as large as $500 billion in this country alone.

"Something nobody focused on in the campaign is that in the decade of the 1980s, tens of thousands of jobs were created in a new environmental industry," said Hugh Holman, environmental services senior analyst for Alex. Brown & Sons Inc., a Baltimore-based investment banking firm. "[And] these were technology-driven, high-paying jobs."

At the same time, demand for environmental control technology and services overseas is another multibillion-dollar market. And analysts say that this technology is an outgrowth of the tough environmental protection standards that some businesses argue are affecting their competitiveness.

President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle generally have opposed additional regulation as a drag on business, and the vice president's Council on Competitiveness has actively sought curtail government rulemaking. Bill Clinton's choice of ardent environmentalist Al Gore as his running mate has both industry and environmentalists assuming that a Democratic administration would mean a more active government role in ecological matters.

"By and large, a Democrat administration would be viewed as a (( plus for the environment industry," said Mr. Holman. "In fact, there is a fair degree of support among the CEOs and presidents of environment companies for Clinton and Gore simply because they believe a Democrat administration would do more for the environment than a Republican administration."

The last 12 years have not been bad ones for environmental companies. Employment in the industry, for instance, grew 20 to 25 percent a year in the last decade -- so fast that it often couldn't find enough people. Waste Management Inc. of Oak Brook, Ill., the nation's largest waste hauler, is a prime example; it grew from 6,070 employees in 1980 to more than 64,000 worldwide this year.

Until recently, it had looked as though ecology would be a key issue in the 1992 election. In 1989, pollster Louis Harris said, "The environment has by now become an explosive and decisive cutting edge in mainstream politics. Indeed, it is possible that in 1992 or in 1996 a president will be elected with a pro-environmental stance as his primary identification."

In 1991 a Golin/Harris Communications survey found that half the Americans polled said they were willing to sacrifice jobs in their communities to fight pollution.

But it hasn't turned out that way. Just as a similar ecological

fervor was squelched in the 1970s by the energy crisis, the flagging economy has done the trick in the '90s.

"The way human beings behave about the environment, it is secondary until they can afford to address those [economic] problems," said professor Don Coursey, director of the Business, Law and Economics Center at Washington University in St. Louis.

"In a period when the economy is not doing well, our interest in addressing environmental problems goes down very fast," he said. "In a period of time when the economy is growing, our interest in environment goes up.

"One way out of this is, if we are developers of leading edge pollution-control technology for the world, we can export them. In the future, we may be the world leader in the environment cleanup industry."

The arguments for the Democratic point of view are strong ones, as well. But "it strikes me that the Democrats have concluded that jobs and the economy are the issues in the minds of the voting public, and clearly the pathway to the vote," said Stuart Hart, assistant professor of corporate strategy at the University of Michigan.

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