Even before President Barack Obama unveiled his sweeping climate change plan on Tuesday, Republican leaders were denouncing the effort as a job-killer. Any move to restrict polluting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, they maintained, would send energy costs up and lead to mass layoffs in a vital job sector.
At a press conference last Thursday, House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) blasted the expected proposal as “absolutely crazy.”
“Why would you want to increase the cost of energy and kill more American jobs at a time when the American people are still asking where are the jobs?” he asked.
But experts who have studied the intersection of environmental policy and the job market say there's little truth to this claim, if any.
Such assertions are "wildly overstated," said Richard Revesz, the director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University. He framed Boehner's remark as the latest iteration of a “job-killer meme” that has surfaced frequently in recent years as Republicans have sought to drum up fears about Obama’s environmental efforts.
“We hear often that large swaths of the economy will be wiped out due to one regulation or another,” Revesz said. “Fortunately, and not surprisingly, we don't see those predictions coming true.”
In a comprehensive 2012 review of more than 25 studies that attempted to gauge the effect of environmental regulations on jobs, a team of researchers led by Revesz found that many claims about such regulations were unreliable.
While studies commissioned by the coal industry warned that millions of jobs could be lost, others conducted by left-leaning think tanks and environmental groups predicted that millions of jobs would be gained, their survey found.
By contrast, the most detailed studies concluded that job losses and gains from environmental regulations essentially balanced out. "When serious studies have been done, the impacts tend to be small -- sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but small," Revesz said.
Obama said Tuesday that he would use his executive powers to place limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The plan is the most ambitious effort by a U.S. president to address climate change to date and includes $8 billion in loan guarantees for clean energy projects, such as efforts to trap and store carbon dioxide emitted by coal-burning power plants.
One company that stands to benefit from the plan is Neumann Systems Group, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. The company recently won a $73.5 million contract to apply its liquid-based emissions scrubbing technology to a local power plant that is under construction. Todd Tiahrt, Neumann's CEO, said the technology could also be used to retrofit older plants at a cost of about $150 million for an average-sized facility.
Tiahrt said he expected Obama's proposal would spur growth in his field, and that in five years his operation could employ 500 engineers. But he also worried that new regulations would single out coal plants for closure, even though they are hardly the only carbon polluters.
"My initial reaction is this amounts to an unfair segregation of the coal industry," he said.
Coal plants are still proliferating across the world, Tiahrt said, and any initiative to curb their use in the United States would also inhibit the growth of businesses like his that are developing methods to make coal clean.
Perhaps sensing this paradox, Democrats seem to be pulling back on their attempts to directly counter Republicans' jobs fears and portray climate regulations as boons to the job market.
The policy paper that accompanied Obama's announcement mentions potential job growth stemming from the proposed measures six separate times, but it avoids any specifics, such as what types of jobs might be created and in which industries.
Indeed, the only specific job-growth number in the report refers to an "estimated" 17,000 jobs created at 50 solar and wind farms and geothermal plants approved by the Department of Energy since 2009.
This reluctance to be predictive could be a sign the administration wants to bury a boast Obama made while on the campaign trail in 2008. If elected president, he pledged, he would invest in green-energy technology that would yield 5 million jobs.
The best opportunity at realizing that goal came in 2009, when the massive stimulus approved by Congress provided $90 billion in loans, tax credits and other measures for increasing clean energy production and bolstering public transit.
Even the most vocal supporters of the stimulus acknowledge that the investment didn't create many jobs. Robert Pollin, a former Energy Department official who was tasked with tabulating jobs stemming from the stimulus, said his "best guess" is that 240,000 green jobs were created from 2009 to 2011.
But while those green-energy efforts may not have boosted the job market, they weren't job-killers either, Revesz noted. And all things considered, he said, Obama's newly proposed climate rules are likely to do more good than harm.
"With the health benfits and environmental benefits are strong as they are, it's really clear to us that we as a nation are better off with these regulations," he said.