In the living memory of older residents, Pittsburgh was the smoky city -- where midnight came in the morning and shirts were dirty by noon -- and that smoke was the byproduct of an economy based on coal. Hearths glowed and jobs abounded, but the air was like poison.
In those days, Old King Coal and his acolytes had their loyal representatives in Congress and the state Legislature to see to the interests of industry. But gradually things changed. Americans came to appreciate that jobs and clean air weren't mutually exclusive. In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was born under a Republican president, Richard Nixon.
Although mine run-off still pollutes streams and houses buckle from underground coal operations, the days when coal was king are over. Or are they? In the last week, you could blink and mistake the region's Republican congressmen for antique lawmakers in top hats, dutifully trying to ensure that coal would continue to rule without restriction.
Consider this statement by Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, on the House floor Thursday: "In southwestern Pennsylvania, coal is our heritage. ... That heritage and prosperity is threatened by this new regulation." Throw that congressman a history book for a fuller appreciation of the bad as well as the good in that heritage and a calendar indicating that times have changed.
Mr. Murphy was speaking in support of the Energy Consumers Relief Act -- HR 1582 -- which is just the latest GOP-sponsored bill that effectively seeks to stop the EPA from doing the regulatory job that most Americans expect in the interests of their health and that of the planet.
The legislation -- which passed on a vote of 232-181 -- would prevent the EPA from promulgating any rule on energy production that had aggregate costs of more than $1 billion if it had significant adverse effects on the economy. Mr. Murphy successfully added an amendment that would require explicit congressional approval before using "social cost of carbon" calculations in the age of climate change -- on which, of course, his party remains blind to the scientific and increasingly obvious truth.
Mr. Murphy is not alone in his anachronistic war on regulation, despite living near a city that was once hell with the lid off and was made famously livable largely because of environmental regulation. Reps. Bill Shuster, R-Blair, and Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, also supported the bill.
All of them are championing the past at the expense of the future. The United States is in the midst of a natural gas boom that is making coal an energy source of the past even if there were not an EPA. Yet these lawmakers still carry metaphorical buckets for the coal industry, blind to the fact that new jobs will be formed as others go -- as has always been the case, from the Industrial Revolution to the present. Only this time everyone will breathe easier.
First Published August 6, 2013 12:00 AM