by Daniel J. Weiss and Jackie Weidman
In the 2008 presidential race, both major parties’ candidates—then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)—had similar proposals to reduce industrial carbon pollution to slow climate change. Although the two candidates disagreed about many issues, public health protection from air pollution wasn’t one of them.
What a difference four years makes. Since taking office, President Obama has proposed and adopted significant pollution reductions protective enough to safeguard public health as required by the Clean Air Act. Meanwhile, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney—this year’s Republican presidential candidate—promises to remove these protections, which would lead to 21,600 unnecessary premature deaths, 199,000 asthma attacks, and 12,540 hospitalizations every year, based on Environmental Protection Agency projections. In fact, Gov. Romney even questions whether humans are predominantly responsible for climate change.
Gov. Romney opposes these pollution-reduction measures that would shield children, seniors, and other vulnerable people from mercury, carcinogens, and carbon pollution.And his vice-presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), voted more than a dozen times over the past 18 months to block these and other public health safeguards.
Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan’s promise to invalidate defenses against industrial chemical hazards would have tragic health consequences for hundreds of thousands of Americans. As we later explain in detail, this harm to public health would also cost our economy up to $187 billion annually due to premature deaths, health care expenses, and lost productivity.
Why are the two Republican candidates so opposed to protecting Americans’ health from air pollution? Gov. Romney now boasts millions of dollars in campaign contributions from big oil, coal, and utility companies—$3 million in direct campaign donations so far from individuals and political action committees affiliated with these three industries.
Meanwhile, outside organizations and super PACs have done the dirty work for the Romney-Ryan campaign by attacking President Obama and his energy policies so the campaign doesn’t have to. The Washington Post reported that outside groups spent more than $23.7 million through mid-June on ads criticizing the Obama administration’s energy policies.
This issue brief details the connections between the fundraising of the Romney-Ryan campaign and their dirty energy policies that threaten the health of us all. We begin by looking at the safeguards put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency since 2009 and then detail how a Romney-Ryan administration would gut these safeguards, and who specifically benefits from such actions. As we will demonstrate, more air pollution for Americans to breathe in means more money in the pockets of the Romney-Ryan campaign.
New safeguards will protect public from death, asthma attacks, and hospitalizations
Under President Obama the Environmental Protection Agency issued several long-overdue pollution-reduction rules to protect public health. These include limits on the following types of air pollution:
- Mercury and other toxic chemicals from power plants
- Mercury and other toxic chemicals from industrial boilers and incinerators
- Mercury and other toxic chemicals from cement kilns (cement manufacturing)
- Carbon pollution from power plants
- Soot and smog from power plants in upwind states
Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan oppose these safeguards. Here is a brief description of the importance of each of these measures to public health:
Reduce mercury and carcinogens from power plants
Established by the EPA last year, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard places limits on mercury, lead, arsenic, acid gases, and other cancer-causing chemicals from coal-fired power plants. The standard mandates that power plants must reduce mercury pollution by 90 percent, cut acid gases by 88 percent, and substantially reduce other pollutants by 2015.
These plants are the dominant source of mercury contamination. The EPA warned that:
Uncontrolled releases of mercury from power plants can damage children’s developing nervous systems, reducing their ability to think and learn. Releases of other toxic air pollutants from power plants can cause a range of dangerous health problems in adults, from cancer to respiratory illnesses.
On August 16 the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, released an analysis of the consequences of the air toxics rules for power plants—along with two proposed and one final rule blocked by the courts, all to clean up power plants—and concluded that the mercury rule:
… would reduce adverse health or environmental impacts associated with coal fueled electricity generating units, potentially avoiding thousands of premature deaths each year.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), who requested the GAO study, reiterated that “we must address the health and environmental concerns related to the power sector, and this [GAO] report shows that we can do it responsibly.”
Reduce mercury from industrial boilers and incinerators
The EPA has nearly finalized toxic air pollution limits for industrial boilers and incinerators. Like power plants they are major sources of, mercury, acid gases, fine particles, and toxic chemicals. The new limitations would require “substantial reductions” of these pollutants, including a nearly 75 percent reduction in mercury. Existing sources have three years to comply with the standards and can request an additional year if necessary. These reductions would annually prevent up to 8,100 fatalities and 52,000 cases of asthma attacks.
The final boiler and incinerator rule provides a large return on investment. The EPA “estimates that Americans would receive 12 to 30 dollars in health benefits for every dollar spent to meet the proposed standards.”
Air pollution from industrial boilers does not pose an equal threat to all Americans, however. The EPA found that these pollution sources are more common in places with larger minority and low-income populations:
The data indicate that coal-fired EGUs [electric generating units] are located in areas where the minority share of the population living within a three mile buffer is higher than the national average. … for these same areas, the percent of the population below the poverty line is also higher than the national average.
Reduce mercury and carcinogens from cement manufacturing
On July 18 the EPA proposed limits on airborne carcinogens and mercury from 158 cement kilns, which are the second-largest industrial source of mercury pollution in the United States. The limits will reduce mercury pollution from these facilities by more than 90 percent, with a target date of 2016. This pollution reduction will annually prevent “960 to 2,500 premature deaths in people with heart disease,” at least 1,740 hospitalizations and emergency room visits, and “17,000 cases of aggravated asthma.” The revised rule should reduce pollution-reduction costs compared to the EPA’s previous proposal.
Unfortunately, the proposal would unnecessarily delay the implementation of these standards for two years, as well as weaken enforcement measures. Both of these new elements of the cement kiln rule would allow needless suffering by delaying and weakening the immediate health benefits from pollution reductions from cement manufacturing, and the EPA should remove them.
Reducing climate-change-causing carbon pollution
This spring the EPA issued the first-ever limits on industrial carbon pollution. The proposed rule would require new coal-fired electric power plants to emit only half the carbon pollution a new plant emits today. Americans submitted 3 million comments in support of carbon pollution reductions from both new and existing power plants—a record for public input on a proposed pollution reduction or environmental standard.
Reduce soot and smog from power plants in upwind states
In 2011 the Environmental Protection Agency finalized long-overdue soot and smog pollution reduction requirements for power plants whose emissions plague downwind states. But activist conservative judges blocked the measure in response to a lawsuit by companies that own dirty coal-fired power plants, the states that house them, and other special interests.
The safeguards in the Cross State Air Pollution Rule would have saved up to 34,000 lives and prevented hundreds of thousands of aggravated asthma cases every year. The reduced fatalities and other health harms would have saved the economy up to $280 billion annually. Despite these benefits, two U.S. federal appeals court judges appointed by President George W. Bush struck down the rule.
The dissenting judge, Judith Roberts, wrote that the majority opinion chose to ignore case law, and vacating the rule results in “the endorsement of a “maximum delay” strategy for regulated entities, rewarding states and industries for cloaking their objections throughout years of administrative rulemaking procedures.”
This decision was not due to the EPA “overreaching” its authority since the Bush administration’s attempt to issue a similar, though less protective, rule was also struck down by the federal courts.
The damage done by this faulty decision is already evident. One day after the court ruling, Big Rivers Electric Cooperative, a utility in western Kentucky, announced it would scrap plans to install pollution controls on its coal-fired plants. The company’s plants are upwind of the Louisville metropolitan region, contributing to high smog levels throughout the area. Other utilities may also downsize their pollution-reduction plans.
This 2-to-1 decision by a federal appeals court panel to overturn the limits on soot and smog from upwind power plants should be appealed to the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Hopefully the EPA will do so. Because Gov. Romney clearly opposes other public health safeguards, he would be very unlikely to appeal the court ruling to restore the soot and smog reductions.
Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan oppose these safeguards that save lives and money
Every single year, these public health safeguards will save thousands of lives and up to $187 billion, but Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan plan to undo them as one of their top priorities. Gov. Romney says he would promptly issue an executive order that “directs all agencies to immediately initiate the elimination of Obama-era regulations that unduly burden the economy or job creation.”
For his part, Rep. Ryan has one of the worst voting records on environmental and public health issues according to the League of Conservation Voters’ national environmental scorecard for the U.S. House of Representatives. During the current Congress that began in January 2011, he repeatedly voted for legislation to repeal, block, or weaken essential public health safeguards, including opposing limits on mercury, carcinogens, soot, and carbon pollution.
Opposition to mercury and other pollution reductions from power plants
In June the National Journal’s energy and environment correspondent Amy Harder reported on Gov. Romney’s opposition to mercury and other toxic pollution reductions from coal-fired power plants. “Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney,” she wrote, “opposes a landmark environmental regulation controlling mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants, according to a campaign statement.”
Campaign spokesperson Andrea Saul issued a muddled defense of Gov. Romney’s position by saying that the mercury pollution-reduction standard “costs more than $1,500 for every one dollar reduction in mercury pollution.” The EPA, however, projects “that for every dollar spent to reduce pollution, Americans get $3 to $9 in health benefits in return.”
The Hill also reported that while campaigning in Ohio on August 14, Gov. Romney continued to attack reductions in mercury and other deadly pollutants emitted by coal-fired power plants. “Romney has attacked Obama administration air pollution rules that Republicans and business lobbyists say will badly wound the coal industry,” the authors stated, “including rules requiring cuts in mercury and other air toxic emissions.”
Clearly, campaign contributors trump the health of average Americans in the eyes of Gov. Romney and his running mate.
Opposition to reductions in carbon pollution that are responsible for climate change
Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan both oppose reductions in carbon pollution responsible for climate change. On July 14 Gov. Romney publicly challenged the Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA, which found that the EPA has both the authority and the responsibility to limit carbon pollution. He wrongly claimed, “We have made a mistake is what I believe, in saying that the EPA should regulate carbon emissions. I don’t think that was the intent of the original legislation, and I don’t think carbon is a pollutant in the sense of harming our bodies.”
His latter statement ignores the death and illness resulting from effects of climate change, such as more severe heat waves, drought, floods, smog, severe allergies, and tropical diseases.
Rep. Ryan voted against an amendment to accept climate science and the urgency for action. He opposed Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D-CA) amendment to H.R. 910 that states that “Congress accepts EPA’s findings that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.”
Rep. Ryan later voted for H.R. 910 to prevent the EPA from implementing the Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA. The bill prohibits EPA from analyzing, setting, or enforcing carbon pollution reduction standards.
Hurting public health under guise of ‘regulatory reform’
The new Romney energy plan indicates that he would undermine public health rules in the name of “regulatory reform.” It falsely claims that the Obama administration “[went] so far as to implement regulations designed to ‘bankrupt’ the coal industry.” And on September 7 the Romney campaign released an ad promising to “repeal Obama’s regulations” on coal and oil.
Gov. Romney also advocates balancing the easy-to-measure cost of reducing pollution with the difficult-to-calculate value of people’s lives. The plan calls for “regulation that takes cost into account.” This means that future pollution-protection standards would balance the value of children’s and seniors’ lives and health against polluters’ claims about pollution cleanup costs, rather than based on protection standards determined by the latest, best science and recommendations from doctors.
The 2012 Republican platform promises to severely restrict the EPA’s ability to protect children, seniors, and others from mercury, carbon, and other air pollutants. The platform “support(s) pending legislation to ensure cumulative analysis of EPA regulations … [and] also call[s] on Congress to take quick action to prohibit EPA from moving forward with new greenhouse gas regulations.”
A Republican president and political party with these views would likely put corporate interests ahead of Americans’ health.
Neither Gov. Romney’s energy plan that blocks the mercury reductions for power plants, nor allowing the court decision to stand that strikes the upwind soot and smog reduction requirements will be able to shield the coal industry from market forces. According to a Reuters analysis, cheap natural gas and other factors will cause up to 50 gigawatts of coal-fired electricity generation to retire.
Kevin Massy, a Brookings Institution analyst, told Reuters, “The biggest challenge facing the coal industry is cheap, abundant, less carbon-intense natural gas, and no matter how many photo ops he [Romney] has in front of coal-fired stations, it doesn’t change the economics.”
Oil and coal prospered under the Obama administration
The Romney campaign has also attacked President Obama for waging a “war against oil and coal.” This claim is simply false.
Domestic oil production is at its highest level since 1998. The Energy Information Administration projects that in 2012 U.S. oil imports will be at the lowest level since 1997. The United States now produces more oil from its publicly owned lands and waters compared to the last three years of the Bush administration. And the five largest oil companies—BP plc, Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil Corp, and the Royal Dutch Shell Group—made a combined $60 billion in profits during the first six months of 2012, driven by high oil and gasoline prices. These same companies earned a record $137 billion in 2011, also due to high prices.
And there’s no assault on coal either. U.S. coal production was nearly 2 percent higher in 2011 compared to 2009, despite the worst economy in 80 years. In fact, there are more coal employees now than at any time during the George W. Bush administration. As The Charleston Gazette reported in 2011, “The total number of coal jobs is at its highest level since 1996, with 90,354 jobs in 2011, according to federal Mine Safety and Health Administration data.”
Another sign of the coal industry’s health is that large coal companies continue to make huge profits. In 2011 the two largest coal companies, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, made profits of $946 million and $143 million, respectively.
There has been some shift away from coal and toward natural gas electricity generation, but that is due to the low price for natural gas rather than air pollution reduction requirements. A February 2012 analysis of coal plant retirements by the Analysis Group found that coal plant declines resulted from basic changes in market forces:
The sharp decline in natural gas prices, the rising cost of coal, and reduced demand for electricity are all contributing factors in the decisions to retire some … coal-fired generating units. These trends started well before EPA issued its new air pollution standards.
The Charleston Gazette recently reported that coal industry executives themselves acknowledge that low natural gas prices, a warm winter, and a sluggish economy are the primary reasons for any declines in coal mining.
Gov. Romney supported pollution reductions to protect children and seniors before he opposed them
Gov. Romney did not always oppose pollution controls on power plants. As governor of Massachusetts he supported protecting his constituents from dangerous pollutants. ThinkProgress reported that in 2003 he sought pollution reductions from a Pacific Gas and Electric Company power plant linked to dozens of premature deaths and 14,400 asthma attacks annually, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
At a press conference to announce new pollution reductions for the plant, Gov. Romney said:
I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people. And that plant kills people and PG&E [Pacific Gas and Electric Company] has been given a notice to have it cleaned up by 2004 and they have thumbed their nose at the people of Massachusetts and Salem Harbor by not cleaning it up on time.
This is exactly what the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard would require for power plants nationwide. The National Journal reports that under Gov. Romney, Massachusetts “joined with others in the Northeast in suing EPA to demand the very rules on mercury” that he now opposes.
Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan now awash in polluter dollars
With all the public health and economic benefits of air pollution reduction from power plants, industrial boilers, incinerators, and cement kilns, why would Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan oppose these safeguards as candidates? This question is easy to answer if you follow the money.
As of August 22 the Romney presidential campaign had received a total of $3 million in direct contributions from polluting interests who would profit by blocking some or all of these pollution-reduction rules. This campaign cash came to Gov. Romney through direct contributions from individuals and political action committees associated with the oil, gas, utility, and coal industries.
Polluting industries have given much more to Gov. Romney than to President Obama this election cycle. The oil industry, for example, has given almost six times more money to Gov. Romney than to President Obama so far this cycle.
During the week of August 20, Gov. Romney raised an additional $10 million from Texas oil executives in two days of events whose hosts included ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson and oil billionaire Harold Hamm, who is also the chair of Romney’s energy advisory committee. The events occurred two days before Gov. Romney released his energy agenda.
The Hill reports that at one of these cash corralling confabs, Gov. Romney made sure that his agenda would benefit the donors’ companies. He said, “Your input is something I wanted to retain before we actually cross the Ts and dot the Is on those [energy] policies.”
The Washington Post concluded that “Romney’s plan caters heavily to oil and coal interests, and oil executives are some of his biggest benefactors.”
The New York Times also confirmed earlier reports that Big Oil executives had a huge influence on Gov. Romney’s energy plan and its primary focus on oil drilling. The Times reported, “Romney’s staff drafted the proposal in consultation with industry executives, including Harold Hamm.”
Donors affiliated with the oil, coal, and utility industries also provided significant funds to Gov. Romney’s supposedly independent super PAC, Restore Our Future, which has spent millions of dollars to support his campaign. A CAP Action Fund analysis of Center for Responsive Politics data found that top donors (those that gave $100,000 or more) affiliated with polluting industries also contributed $5.4 million to Restore Our Future. Hamm, for instance, donated $1 million to the group.
Several interest groups and super PACs have already spent millions of dollars to broadcast misleading anti-Obama ads, many attacking the president for efforts to reduce deadly air pollution from these industrial sources. A Washington Post analysis found that through mid-June, outside groups spent more than $23.7 million on ads denouncing the Obama administration’s energy policies. These groups—American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS, American Energy Alliance, Americans for Prosperity, American Petroleum Institute, and Restore Our Future—echo the fossil-fueled Romney-Ryan agenda.
These ads promote oil-and-gas drilling in protected places, defend tax breaks for Big Oil, attack clean air safeguards, or claim that the TransCanada Corporation’s Keystone XL pipeline will yield tens of thousands of jobs. Other ads attack new standards to protect children and seniors from mercury and other carcinogenic pollution. Some commercials slam the Obama administration’s efforts to invest in the clean energy technologies of the future to remain competitive rather than allow China, Germany, and other nations to dominate the international clean-tech market. Independent campaign fact checkers have consistently found that most of these ads are false or misleading.
One of these groups, Americans for Prosperity, was created by brothers Charles and David Koch who run Koch Industries—a major private oil company. The Washington Post reports that the group spent $9.6 million on ads that attack President Obama’s energy policies through mid-June, which is more than any of the other outside groups spent during that time period.
Ads attacking President Obama and his clean energy agenda made up 80 percent of Americans for Prosperity’s total advertising budget. The Post also reported that through August 30, the group spent $28.7 million on ads. All of these ads were negative, presumably attacking Obama and other Democratic candidates’ policies.
The American Energy Alliance is another oil-industry-funded nonprofit interest group that opposes the Obama administration’s energy policies. According to the Post it spent 100 percent of its advertising budget on energy attack ads through June. The group promised, however, to increase spending far beyond this initial effort:
Benjamin Cole, communications director for American Energy Alliance, said the estimated $4 million the group has spent on television, radio and Internet ads “is just a fraction of what we’re expecting to spend” by November. He said the group is proud that it “fired the jump ball for the general election” with an ad running in 10 swing states that criticizes Obama’s energy policies and warns of $9-a-gallon gasoline.
The American Petroleum Institute—the high-pressure lobbying arm of Big Oil—echoes these messages with several multimillion-dollar ad campaigns that attack President Obama’s energy policies without mentioning the president by name. The organization has spent an estimated $37 million so far on television ads, according data from Kantar Media—a content and advertising analyst firm for political and public affairs—analyzed by The New York Times.
On September 14 the Times concluded that API’s ads reinforce Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan’s oil-above-all agenda that Big Oil interests helped write:
The American Petroleum Institute, backed by the nation’s largest oil and gas companies, is the top energy spender this year with its ‘I’m and energy voter’ campaign. Although the ads avoid explicitly endorsing any candidate, they clearly echo policy stands taken by Mr. Romney and the Republicans: opposing regulations that might slow down drilling and denouncing Mr. Obama’s proposal to eliminate oil subsidies.
API targeted its latest advertising on key swing states including Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia.
Overall, Republican groups plan to spend about $1 billion on advertising and other campaign activities to defeat President Obama and win control of Congress, Politico reports. Big spenders include the Koch brothers, Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Similarly, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity is a utility and coal front group that opposes efforts to reduce harmful mercury, toxics, and carbon pollution from power plants. It plans to spend $40 million on ads and other communications to attack these safeguards. And on August 16 the National Journal learned that Mike Duncan, the founding chair of American Crossroads, will become the new American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity CEO in September. This dirty utility-big coal organization provides a new venue for Duncan to communicate American Crossroads’ anti-Obama message.
And neither Gov. Romney nor his outside support groups show any signs of letting up. During just one week in August, Restore Our Future spent $12.7 million on anti-Obama ads. These groups will continue spending millions of dollars to attack President Obama until Election Day.
Conclusion: Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan oppose health protection for children, support big polluters
Americans strongly support efforts to reduce air pollution from power plants and other industrial facilities. The American Lung Association sponsored an opinion survey in March 2012 by one Democratic and one Republican polling firm and found overwhelming support across party lines for policies to reduce air pollution:
The bipartisan survey, conducted by Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Republican firm Perception Insight, finds that nearly three-quarters of likely voters (73 percent) nationwide support the view that it is possible to protect public health through stronger air quality standards while achieving a healthy economy, over the notion that we must choose between public health or a strong economy. This overwhelming support includes 78 percent of independents, 60 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of conservatives.
Voters also voiced strong support for stricter standards to control industrial and power sector mercury and toxic air pollution. … 78 percent of likely voters were in favor of the EPA updating these standards.
Strong support was also seen for stricter standards on industrial boilers … after hearing messaging from both sides of the issue, voters continued to support these standards by nearly a 20-point margin (56 percent favor, 37 percent oppose).
Despite this overwhelming bipartisan support to protect vulnerable people from air pollution, however, Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan oppose these efforts. They made it clear that they would undo them if elected president and vice president. In turn, they received millions of dollars of direct and indirect support from the very industries responsible for billions of pounds of mercury, carcinogens, and other dangerous pollutants.
Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan’s opposition to commonsense safeguards to protect children, seniors, and the infirm from smog, mercury, soot, and climate change is a radical departure from past nominees of both parties.
Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy and Jackie Weidman is a Special Assistant with the Energy Team at the Center for American Progress.