D.C. Comics are Nothing to Laugh About

By FRANK CARINI

Hope has given way to disgust. Another campaign promise has been broken.

President Obama has abandoned his plan to tighten air-quality rules nationwide to reduce emissions of smog-causing chemicals. After caving to another intense lobbying campaign, this one funded by Big Oil and other corporate polluters whose interest the president is serving, Obama made the announcement a few hours before the start of Labor Day weekend. He’ll likely approve the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline tar sands project the day before Thanksgiving.

Republicans and their highly compensated lobbyist friends — many of whom have also served in Congress — have scared everyone into believing that protecting the air we breathe would cost billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs. I didn’t know clean air was bad for the economy.

Smog is a respiratory irritant that has been linked to asthma attacks and other respiratory illnesses. It's formed when emissions from burning gasoline, power and chemical plants, refineries and other factories mix in sunlight.

In fact, few regions of the United States now escape health-threatening “bad air” days caused by smog pollution. An analysis of government data on air pollution by the Natural Resources Defense Council, finds about 250 communities and parks in nearly 40 states have experienced one or more dangerous air days this year, which makes it unsafe for children, older adults and people with breathing problems to go outside.

The NRDC report says some 2,000 air-quality alerts occurred nationwide in just the first seven months of this year.

But Republicans in Congress, those on the presidential campaign trail and the organizations that cater to them continue to criticize any talk about stricter environmental and public health regulations, which they claim would force mass layoffs. These lawmakers, however, always fail to mention their real concern with more stringent regulations that would better protect the environment and the people they represent: such laws may take a chunk of change out of their CEO buddies’ over-the-top bonuses.

“This is a step in the right direction. ... With a stalled economy and millions of Americans out of work, we cannot afford any sort of costly regulation that would destroy jobs and hamstring growth. House Republicans will continue our efforts to make sure the remaining regulations do not go into effect,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said about Friday’s announcement of a smog bailout by Obama.

Shortsightedness is blinding.

The troubling aspect of all this Washington hot air is that the president has done relatively little to better protect the environment and public health, despite grandiose campaign promises.

The Environmental Protection Agency, following the recommendation of its scientific advisers, had proposed lowering the ozone standard from that set by the Bush administration to a new stricter standard that would have placed hundreds of American counties out of compliance with the federal Clean Air Act. It would have required a major effort by state and local officials, and new emissions controls implemented by industry.

Instead, we’ll continue to adhere to a ridiculously lenient Bush administration standard set in 2008 until a scheduled reconsideration of acceptable pollution limits in 2013, after the presidential election.

I’m sure organizations such as The Heartland Institute, the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will be onboard with better protecting the water we drink and the air we breathe by then.

Here’s the reaction of James M. Taylor, a senior fellow for environmental policy at The Heartland Institute, to the recent smog bailout:

“While President Obama’s announcement that he is withdrawing EPA’s draft ozone standards is a welcome development, EPA continues down the path of economic destruction by imposing costly carbon dioxide restrictions in the name of fighting speculative global warming. [A consensus of world scientists warning that manmade climate change is real, doesn’t impress Taylor.] If the president is serious about relieving EPA’s oppressive burden on America’s economy, he will call off the dogs regarding EPA’s carbon dioxide restrictions, as well.”

The Heartland Institute is a Chicago-based nonprofit that advocates free-market policies. It questions the scientific consensus on climate change, arguing that global warming is not occurring and, further, that warming would be beneficial if it did happen. In the 1990s, the institute worked with Philip Morris to question the link between secondhand smoke and health risks. Besides Philip Morris, the organization has also received funding from ExxonMobil.

Unsurprisingly, the American Petroleum Institute, which represents about 500 oil and natural gas companies, welcomed the president’s timid decision. “The president’s decision is good news for the economy and Americans looking for work,” API CEO Jack Gerard said.

The American Petroleum Institute spends about $3 million annually on lobbying. It didn’t like that cap-and-trade idea.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 3 million businesses, also thinks environmental protections are choking America.

“The U.S. Chamber is glad the White House heeded our warning and withdrew these potentially disastrous — and completely voluntary — actions from the EPA,” CEO Thomas Donohue said. “This is an enormous victory for America’s job creators, the right decision by the president, and one that will help reduce the uncertainty facing business. [What about the uncertainty facing our air quality?] It’s also a big first step in what needs to be a broader regulatory reform effort.”

Apparently, to these organizations and the lawmakers they buy, a better-protected environment and employment can’t coexist.

This is the kind of “thinking” that is taking more and more control in shaping U.S. environmental and public health policy. It's making us sick.

The Obama administration has put in place some important standards and safeguards for clean air, such as the reduction of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide air pollution across state borders, a proposal to cut mercury pollution from power plants and the first carbon pollution standards for cars and trucks.

But once again an environmental issue becomes nothing more than a campaign barometer. Republicans in Congress held up the proposed ozone rule as a test of Obama’s commitment to regulatory reform and job creation — as if both can’t exist simultaneously.

And once again, the Obama administration caves to big polluters and their bought-off sphere of influence.

The bottom line is this: Washington is a cesspool that needs to be cleaned up, but the environment doesn’t stand a chance against corporate profits. Let the less fortunate pick up that tab — that’s the D.C. way.

Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News.