By Rex W. Tillerson Evidence continues to roll in that the U.S. economy is struggling. And economists from across the ideological spectrum have rightly observed that by historic standards this is one of the weakest U.S. recoveries on record.
But even in the midst of anemic growth and falling labor-force participation rates, one sector continues to power forward: America’s chemical industry.
The reason for the industry’s resurgence is well known: Vast new supplies of natural gas flowing from U.S. shale deposits have given American chemical manufacturers a global edge.
The response from the industry is a flurry of activity that could reap benefits for decades to come. Chemical manufacturers have announced approximately $150 billion in investments.
The chemical industry is building new plants – and retrofitting others to leverage U.S. natural gas. The data on nominal construction spending shows construction spending by the chemical industry increased nearly 140 percent in the year that ended on June 2015 – and the growth rate is over 150 percent in the first half of this year alone.
If all of the industry’s investments move forward it will create nearly $300 billion in new economic output and lead to more than 400,000 new jobs. They would also lead to $21 billion in permanent new federal, state, and local tax revenues by 2023.
But the future successes of the shale revolution and America’s manufacturing renaissance are not forgone conclusions.
We need policies equal to this historic opportunity.
The good news is that the sector may be getting some timely help from a rare instance of Washington bipartisanship.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress have come together in an effort to modernize the Toxic Substances Controls Act (TSCA), the outdated regulations affecting the chemical industry. The proposed reforms will help bring that 1970s legislation into the 21st century.
It’s taken years of bipartisan work and negotiation, but the changes are just the comprehensive overhaul we need.
Just as important, these bipartisan efforts look to have an excellent chance of succeeding. The reform is drawing impressive support from across the ideological and economic spectrum – from industry, building trade unions, and organizations including the Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, March of Dimes, and the U.S. Humane Society.
By modernizing the regulations governing the chemical industry, we can strengthen and clarify the role of government in overseeing and protecting public health. The proposed reforms would provide a better system for the Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate risks of both new and existing chemicals using the best available science. This will give the public confidence in the safety of the chemical products that are used every day.
Regulatory modernization will also help strengthen and sustain America’s role as a leading innovator for chemical products – an area that drives 25 percent of the U.S. economy.
To borrow a phrase from Dan Yergin, plastics and chemical products are “the bricks and mortar of contemporary civilization.” They are found in 96 percent of manufactured goods – from life-saving medical devices and personal technologies to food packaging and storage to building materials. Chemicals are vital to making the world safer and healthier. They are also critical to using energy more efficiently as well as helping us minimize mankind’s impact on the environment.
But over the decades, for the U.S. chemical sector, the regulatory landscape has been mired in complexity and uncertainties because of anachronistic Washington rules.
TSCA has made it difficult to green light innovations or effectively calculate costs of various policy options. Because the federal legislation is so out of date, this system is broken and not working. In the face of this dysfunction and ambiguity in Washington, a patchwork of state and local laws has appeared – further complicating interstate commerce and industry’s investment decisions.
Yet, thanks to the efforts of leaders in both parties in Washington, we hopefully can look forward to clearing away that clutter and enacting reforms that bring clarity, certainty, and consistency to America’s dynamic and vital chemical industry. With these reforms, parents in every state can be confident that their children are adequately protected from any risks and manufacturers from New Jersey to California will have the regulatory certainty they need to continue to innovate and create jobs.
TSCA modernization passed the House this summer with overwhelming bipartisan support. And in the Senate a coalition of both Democrats and Republicans have formed to push this across the finish line to send it to the president’s desk.
The leaders in Congress working together to modernize TSCA regulations deserve credit. They are acting in the best interests of our economy and our environment. They are also setting an example for modern Washington – building bridges across parties to act with wisdom and common sense.
It is a moment for which we can all give thanks – and which should guide all the efforts of our elected leaders and policymakers in the future.
Rex W. Tillerson is chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corporation.