Environmentalism has come under attack in recent years from the more right-wing segments of the populace, especially from the Republican party and its surrogates. The myth created during said attacks is that environmentalism gets in the way of economic growth, that environmentalism is bad for the economy.
This myth, however, is just that.
The Republican disdain for pollution regulation is a fairly new phenomenon. People seem to have forgotten that the Clean Air Act, possibly America's most comprehensive and effective anti-pollution measure, was signed by none other than Richard Nixon. It appears that the major turn might have been caused by the Republican party's increasing indebtedness to big business, who sees environmental regulations as a threat to their profits. Libertarians, now that they're righty, don't like it because, apparently, they just don't like anything "the government" does. The negative view of environmentalism has since filtered into other segments of the Republican electorate, like Christian conservatives (they still have trouble defending their newfound views, since "dominionist" theology is almost painfully inadequate as a defense for undoing Creation).
Now, there is one way in which pollution controls are arguably a drag on the economy: polluting companies have to invest in filters, scrubbers, and more efficient equipment, which cuts into their profit margins. However, there's a big flip side to this argument. For one, it would seem that someone has to make said filters, scrubbers, etc., and they do make a profit. So somebody makes a profit either way, and who cares if it's GE rather than American Electric Power who makes it?
The second, and bigger, argument lies in the collateral economic damage caused by environmentally reckless actions. This collateral damage has all sorts of manifestations, like the wetland destruction (and possibly climate change) that made Katrina so devastating. One side effect of pollution, in my opinion, takes precedence in its economic impact: rising health care costs. Health care is one of the biggest problems facing our country and pollution greatly exacerbates that problem.
Pollution causes a much greater health risk than most people realize. Pollution from coal alone (as in, not including petroleum, nuclear power, pesticides, pig shit lagoons etc.) is linked to heart disease and cancer, 2 of the most common killers in America, as well as asthma and emphysema. I'll use the example of Indiana (which, by way of comparison for my Texan readership, has a population smaller than that of Houston). Pollution from coal power plants in Indiana causes annually (c/o Clear the Air):
887 premature deaths
1491 heart attacks
21,500 asthma attacks
173,000 lost work days
Increases in these things not only are bad for the economy in themselves, but they also cause increases in health care costs and insurance premiums. And just how bad are health care costs? According to the National Coalition on Health Care, health care spending in 2003 accounted for some 15.3% of GDP, about four times the amount spent on national defense. That was 2003, mind you, during the Iraq War. Spending on health care is so high that it's bankrupting people at staggering levels. 50%, half of all bankruptcies in the US, are at least partially due to medical expenses, and get this, 68% of those who file for bankruptcy have health insurance.
Bankruptcies and out-of-control health care costs are bad for the economy. Just ask any airline CEO.