Accept more poison to get less carbon? Kill this crazy idea NOW

Guest bloggers Van Jones, CAP Senior Fellow and former adviser to president Obama on green jobs, and Jorge Madrid, Research Associate at CAP, explain the shortcomings of the latest attempt to broker a Senate compromise on carbon.

As the U.S. Senate prepares to debate clean energy/climate legislation, some utility companies are quietly pushing a crazy idea.

In exchange for cutting their carbon emissions, power plants want to undermine the EPA and get permission to increase other kinds of dangerous pollution. They even want the go-ahead to dump more sulfur and deadly mercury into our air and water.

This literal “poison pill” proposal would turn progress in climate protection into a devastating setback for the health of all Americans — especially for those who live near power plants. The dirty energy lobby hopes that America can be convinced to accept more poison to get less carbon.

Fortunately, national leaders began sounding the alarm last week. Grist’s David Roberts took a break from vacation to alert the nation, calling the utility companies’ backroom play potentially the “scam of the century.”

Green For All’s Phaedra Ellis Lamkins and the NAACP’s Ben Jealous put the matter bluntly, stating: “[B]ig utility companies apparently are making unconscionable demands that threaten the health and safety of all Americans.” Green For All immediately launched an online campaign to kill this nutty notion before it mutates into a legislative proposal.

American policy can be smart enough to protect both our children and our grandchildren.

We should heed these warnings. The deadly coal mine explosion in West Virginia and the devastating environmental catastrophe in our Gulf of Mexico are just two recent examples of the consequences of weak federal oversight.  These tragedies remind us that we need more, not less, environmental protection.

Beltway insiders may be trying to convince themselves that curbing the authority of the EPA and gutting clean air protections is a necessary step to achieving an agreement on climate change legislation.

But this is a false choice. We can have clean air protection for our children today and climate protection for our grandchildren tomorrow. We must not allow the health of our communities to be used as bargaining chips.

This is no time to increase the load of pollutions and toxins in America’s air and water.

  • Already today, particulate air pollution kills 64,000 people in the United States every year – more people than die each year in car accidents. We should be redoubling efforts to reduce these premature deaths from heart and lung disease – not rolling back protections.
  • 27 million children under the age of 13 reside in areas with ozone levels above EPA’s revised standard. Two million children with asthma, or half of the pediatric asthma population under the age of eighteen, lived in these areas.

The utility companies’ shameful proposals would make all of these statistics much worse – resulting in more sickness and death for Americans, including children.

Vulnerable communities should not be asked to suffer disproportionately again.

Worse, these proposals would inflict the most harm on the people who are already suffering. After all: who lives near power plants? Disproportionately, low-income people and people of color.

All of us may have to make some sacrifices and adjustments along the path to a greener and more prosperous America. But communities of color already have the worst air and drinking water – and suffer the most risk from environmental hazards. In the last century’s dirty energy economy, they already suffered disproportionately.

  • People of color are exposed to 70 percent more of the dangerous particulate matter linked to greenhouse gas pollution.
  • People of color, particularly Blacks and Latinos, visit the emergency room for asthma at three and a half times the average rate that whites do, and die from it twice as often.
  • People of color are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods with industrial pollution.

America needs a stronger EPA, not a weaker one.

Therefore, we should look with unease on the willingness of some to strip authority from America’s government to protect our communities and environment. There is only one federal agency standing between our communities and even worse degradation: the EPA.

Undermining the EPA would be a risky choice for all Americans.  A climate bill that saves carbon but takes away EPA’s authority to protect communities against toxic hazards is a defeat for all Americans.  We should reject false choices.

We must also reject the notion that communities of color and low-income communities will once again be asked to bear the burden of a dirty economy.

Law makers must find a way to achieve progress on a climate bill, but taking major steps backward cannot be part of that solution.  An attack on the EPA is an attack on our public health and well being.

We need both a strong climate bill and strong EPA authority to protect our air, our planet, and our public health.

24 Responses to Accept more poison to get less carbon? Kill this crazy idea NOW

  1. Daniel Ives says:

    I think some decent messaging and talking points could quickly kill this thing. Something along the lines of, “So the only way you* are willing to preserve a livable climate for our descendents is if we let you poison them instead?” should do the trick.(* by “you” I mean anyone pushing this, be they a utility company, politician, etc.)

    Even though the details of climate science might be over the head of your average American, I’d think most of them can easily grasp the concept of more pollution = more health hazards.

  2. BB says:

    Probably splitting hairs, but “premature mortality” (which the NRCD study discussed), is a little different than direct causation death. There are many things that can also be considered an influencer for ‘premature mortality’, even for that same 64,000 number.

    (that air pollution clearly must be eradicated notwithstanding)

    …Much like a ‘job saved’ is more dubiously nebulous than a ‘job created’, though anything helpful is, well, helpful.

  3. catman306 says:

    Maybe the corporatists see the over population and poverty across the country and around the world as another resource to be measured, extracted and plundered. In this case, it’s the good health of these not-wealthy-people extracted for the wealth of others… Maybe?

    Everyone’s seen Soylent Green, haven’t they? Which of today’s mighty corporations is capable of producing such a system a decade or two from now?

  4. llewelly says:

    One important danger democratic congresspeople seem not to understand, is that industry is very, very good at manipulating them into accepting modifications to important legislation, which greviously undermine the very things the democratic rank and file hope to gain – and the whole nation needs – from said legislation. This is another example.

  5. Chris Winter says:

    Having just finished reading Eric Pooley’s The Climate War, I am aware of the necessity of making significant concessions to industry in order to get a climate bill or an energy bill (or better yet, one bill that deals with both energy and climate policy) through Congress.

    But I also understand that industry’s proper concerns include avoiding harm to its customers. Accepting increased pollution does not accord with that concern.

    The demand for relaxed standards on sulfur and mercury emissions is especially counterproductive when converting coal plants to abundant natural gas would lower the overall emission of those two toxins as well as reducing the amount of carbon dioxide produced by American power companies.

  6. Michael Tucker says:

    The utility companies, and the congress people who support them, that are calling for this compromise are completely beyond the pale. So mercury in products from China is wrong but mercury from burning coal is ok? Do these congress people care about Americans? Do they ever consider the health and well being of the average American?

    We need an energy bill that will limit CO2 and encourage clean energy technology AND we need the EPA to continue to regulate the dangerous chemical compounds that are released into OUR environment including CO2!

  7. Sasparilla says:

    How the meager (expectations) have fallin.

    It appears that the climate / energy bill is morphing (cap-n-trade is long gone) so far into the hands of the lobbyists that doing nothing may become better than accepting the deal our corporate sponsored senators are working towards.

    Its funny how the removing EPA’s authority over polluters is about the only constant in this constantly changing climate / energy bill saga (with a huge Democratic majority in place!).

    We need to figure out at what point is it time to cut our losses, give up this silly idea our politicians can do something critically important and in the best interest of the country / world and live with what currently exists and is safely possible (EPA & some meager energy only bill) rather than make things worse by buying into a complete sellout / rollback from our Senators.

    How discouraging.

  8. James Prescott says:

    Messaging against this also provides a good opportunity to remind people of how much mercury is currently emitted by coal. Around 50 tons/year in 1999

  9. Prokaryotes says:

    Dangerous Mercury Contamination of Human Body Increasing, Study Finds

  10. llewelly says:

    The demand for relaxed standards on sulfur and mercury emissions is especially counterproductive when converting coal plants to abundant natural gas would lower the overall emission of those two toxins as well as reducing the amount of carbon dioxide produced by American power companies.

    Worse, this concession will enable contrarians to pretend “warmists caused sulfur and mercury emissions to increase, proving they are complete hypocrites about the environment.”

  11. Wit'sEnd says:

    Agreed this deal with the devil is a travesty and must be stopped.

    Add to the very real impacts on human health from the “other” greenhouse gases, and the disproportionate consequences for the lower strata of our class society, it is important to remember a fewe other things:

    1. The adverse health effects from emissions of ethanol are WORSE than those from gasoline and coal.

    2. Emissions from all fuel sources that become ozone when interacting with UV radiation travel great distances from their sources, and the level of global background tropospheric ozone is inexorably rising.

    3. Ozone is toxic to vegetation. It is killing trees and damaging crops. Since plants are at the bottom of the food chain, this rapidly accelerating dieback is going to translate into food shortages faster than most people anticipate or the US EPA or Agricultural Dept. will admit.

    4. The ONLY way to save our food supply is to STOP BURNING FUEL – ration it for only the most essential purposes and transition to clean energy sources on an emergency basis.

  12. Anonymous says:

    It is sobering to realize that warnings about mercury levels in fish are primarily a result of coal fired power plants. All states except Wyoming have warnings about mercury levels in at least some of their fish (Wyoming being the exception simply because it doesn’t test for mercury). Tuna and other ocean fish frequently have high levels of mercury. Weakening the EPA is the last thing we should want to do. Do we really want return to conditions in the late 60’s and early 70’s when rivers caught fire and the air was frequently barely breathable? Keep in mind that the US population has increased by 50% since 1970, so if we roll back the progress we made in the 70’s, things will likely be much worse than they were in the 60’s (of course, as far as mercury is concerned, they are already far worse than they were in the 60’s)

  13. Dave E says:

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to post #11 anoymously.

  14. Bob Potter says:

    Please name names……of the utility companies, the lobbyists, the members of Congress who are behind this and who support this. This needs to be public information. We can’t contact them if we don’t know who they are.

  15. John Hollenberg says:

    This smacks of desperation to me. The best tactic they can come up with is to suggest putting out MORE toxins in exchange for less CO2? Hard to believe anyone would even seriously consider such a nutty idea. Then again, considering our leaders and the stranglehold lobbyists have on them…

  16. william green says:

    While the tradeoff between more poison and less carbon is not one we should have to make, an interesting question is what we should do if that is really the bottom line in today’s politicval environment, which only looks to becoming less favorable in the immediate future. Should we take our ball and go home, or hold our nose and cut the deal?

    The answer would seem turn on how important we think greenhouse gas reduction is relative to other environmental concerns. If greenhouse gas mitigation is really planetary priority number 1, as I think Joe and others have argued, and we are put in a position where the only way to move forward requires us to give ground on some lesser objective that we also care about, it seems to me that we should do so.

    The alternative approach, “lets take our ball and go home because we don’t want to have to choose between two environmental goods,” espoused in the Jones/Madrid posting, seems to suggest that getting going on domestic GHG mitigation isn’t enough of a priority to merit making a sacrifice elsewhere.

    While Joe didn’t author this post, he did decide to post this piece on CLimate Progress. I’d be very interested in his view of the matter given his strong view of the primacy of the climate threat.

  17. mike roddy says:

    I second those who are sickened by the behavior of our government and the corporate lobbyists that they answer to. It’s not only tradeoffs that include eviscerating pollution regulations, it’s everything else, too, including any chance for meaningful action on CO2 emissions.

    How do we take back our government from those who have purchased it? Wish I knew.

  18. David Smith says:

    These corporate systems and the people who run them are thieves. They are stealing the environment that supports and has supported the only world that we humans have ever known, under the guise that we are asking them to do it.

    We need a new, militant, abolishionist movement. The moral atrocity of slaveholding does not hold a candle to depravity of those individuals hiding behind their corporate structures. We are the new slaves at the mercy of our corporate masters.

    Read this book. THE CLIMATE WAR (True believers, power brokers, and the fight to save the Earth) by Eric Pooley, just published.

  19. Prokaryotes says:

    A new study led by a team of Boston University School of Public Health researchers suggests a link between polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs), industrial compounds which are widely used in many consumer products, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.

  20. Prokaryotes says:

    Chemicals From Teflon Found in Human Breast Milk “Perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, are found in human blood around the world, including the blood of newborns, but this is the first study in the United States to document their occurrence in human milk,”

  21. Prokaryotes says:

    Hundreds of Chemicals Found in Newborns
    he umbilical cord is the lifeline of infants; it brings nutrients and oxygen to the baby. These days, it also brings hundreds of poisons. Recently, the Environmental Working Group tested the umbilical cord blood of ten American minority infants, and found a total of 232 known poisons in their blood.

    The study found BPA, a petrochemical found in baby bottles, water bottles, and computer equipment. BPA is an environmental estrogen connected to birth defects, sexual dysfunction, hormonal problems, and diminished intellectual capability. BPA was found in nine out of ten of the blood samples.

  22. Bob Potter says:

    May I ask again……who are “They?” Not once in the article is any person, company, Senator or lobbyist identified.
    I am an avid reader of CP (addiction comes to mind) and have learned much from the posts and the comments….and I thank you all for your good work in spreading the truth, and the alarm. However, you also are sticklers for facts and data. So, can someone, anyone, tell us the names of utility companies and others behind this “crazy idea.” They do need to be called out, but we can’t do it if we don’t know who they are.
    Thank you.

  23. SolarMom says:

    I made this comment at Grist, but I hope no one minds if I repeat it here:

    Politically this choice is a false choice as well. The added costs to utilities of EPA’s rules restricting conventional pollution (SO2, NOx, particulate matter), coupled with carbon legislation, mitigate against coal burning in the future. The more costs imposed on utilities burning coal, the more likely they will switch away from it sooner.

    We’re already seeing movement toward natural gas, as the price of gas becomes competitive with coal. I know gas has its issues, but it remains a bridge fuel away from coal; it emits a lot less, and there’s merit to not blowing the tops off mountains.

    The big picture: we need to push toward the point where other sources of fuel are less costly than coal. Renewable electricity standards, more effort by the federal government to create a market for renewables at enough scale to bring the price down, greater energy efficiency, and yes, natural gas for the moment — all this is part of what we need.

    Limits on conventional pollution go a long way toward imposing costs on utilities that mitigate against coal. Tossing those out is cutting ourselves off at the knees. It’s stupid, and it doesn’t get us where we need to go.

  24. lizardo says:

    Re “name names (utilities etc.)”, read David Roberts’ original heads up on these backroom shenanigans and the politico story about the players.

    Duke Energy, Exelon, Dominion, PNM Resources, PG&E, FP&L, Edison Electric Insitute (EEI, umbrella group), and I imagine many others in background, any coal burning utility and many/all coal companies…

    The environmental groups mentioned as attending the meeting did NOT endorse this idea, though as usual Environmental Defense Fund is the weakest link.