By Elizabeth Grossman

We’ve heard repeatedly throughout this political season and throughout this Congress that environmental regulations stifle economic growth and destroy jobs. Yet a new economic analysis shows that in recent years, environmental restoration projects have created significantly more jobs per million dollars of investment than other industries, including coal, gas, and nuclear energy. The study, conducted by Peter Edwards, a natural resource economist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and colleagues, examined job creation resulting from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) spending on coastal habitat restoration projects around the country. They found that these projects created, on average, 17 jobs per million dollars spent. Comparable investment in the coal industry has created fewer than six jobs per million dollars; for the oil and gas and industry the figures pencil out to approximately five jobs per million dollars invested, and for the nuclear energy industry, four jobs. “This suggests,” write the authors, “that habitat restoration is indeed an effective way to stimulate job creation.”

In an interview, Edwards explained that the analysis is a very straightforward one, done using techniques commonly used for such studies, including studies conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It looks at jobs created directly, indirectly, and those created as a result of local spending by the industry investment. The jobs numbers, Edwards cautioned, are but a short-term snapshot, and don’t reflect the full scope of these restoration projects’ long-term benefits. This means that ultimately, the jobs created and related economic benefits of these projects may end up being greater than this study reflects.

The study, Investing in nature: Restoring coastal habitat blue infrastructure and green job creation published in the journal Marine Policy, looked at the jobs created by 44 projects in 22 states – and the US Virgin Islands and Saipan – supported by the ARRA funding received by NOAA in 2009 and followed those investments through the end of 2010. Projects involved work to restore wetlands, shellfish beds, coral reefs, and fish passages in coastland areas and the Great Lakes. Removal of invasive species and marine debris and restoration of oyster reefs and shoreline habitats were among the projects analyzed for job creation. Jobs included both direct, hands-on work on these projects, and those created indirectly in industries that supplied materials or services to these projects – building materials, plant nurseries, and professional services such as engineering, scientific and legal expertise. Also included in the jobs estimate were those in local businesses such a restaurants – what economists called “induced jobs.” Overall these projects created between 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars of investment.

The analysis does not detail wages and other hiring conditions, but the jobs include manual labor and construction jobs, boat and heavy equipment operators, landscapers, geologists, truck drivers, accountants, engineers, fishermen, environmental consultants, surveyors, biologists, and administrative staff. The study also notes that “habitat restoration projects typically have specific timelines much like any infrastructure or construction project, for example building oil pipelines or bridges and roads, so many of these habitat restoration jobs are not “permanent;” they do not last indefinitely.” The authors go on to note, however, that “investing in habitat restoration provides more permanent future jobs in rebuilt sustainable fisheries and coastal tourism and may yield long-lasting benefits to local economies, such as higher property values and better water quality.”

While many of the short-term benefits of these projects are felt locally, their longer-term benefits – in improved fisheries health, for example (think of seafood served not just coast to coast but also shipped worldwide) – will have impacts of a much larger geographic scope. An analysis of these longer-term and other ecosystem services benefits are the subject of a follow-up study Edwards and colleagues are now completing.

The authors call this investing in the country’s “blue infrastructure” – blue for the coastal and shoreline habitat, “versus gray infrastructure such as roads,” explained Edwards. Edwards and colleagues also note that currently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not include such coastal habitat restoration in its roster of “green jobs,” and suggest that “the jobs created from blue infrastructure rehabilitation projects should become part of the national discourse on green jobs.” The number of jobs created by the “blue infrastructure” projects examined for this study was higher than that created by recent investment in wind, solar, biomass and other “alternative” energy developments. Wind, solar, and biomass job creation per million dollars invested, however, which all created upwards of 12 jobs per million dollars invested, was more than double that for the coal, oil, gas, and nuclear energy industries. And in a 2009 study, jobs created per million dollars invested in all conservation jobs also exceeded those created by oil and gas pipeline construction.

“The main point,” said Edwards, “is that ecological protection and economic growth are not mutually exclusive but complimentary.”

We’ll be hearing lots more between now and November – and no doubt for months to come – that environmental regulation is bad for the economy. The numbers from Edwards and his colleagues begin to tell another story: that protecting the environment is an effective way to stimulate the economy, both in the immediate future and for the long-term as well.

 

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green ChemistryHigh Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.