House Energy Bill Fuels Dirtier Air, More Lung Disease

Today, the House of Representatives passed the Strategic Energy Production Act of 2012, H.R. 4480. This bill puts oil and gas profits above the health of the most vulnerable Americans, especially infants, children and senior citizens, in a concentrated attack on air pollution safeguards under the Clean Air Act.

The House passed this bill by a 248 to 163 vote, with 229 Republicans and 19 Democrats voting for it, and 5 Republicans and 158 Democrats voting against it. The 248 pro-Big Oil votes received $38.6 million from the oil and gas industry — over four times more than those who voted against it.

Particularly egregious is Title II of the bill. It is the Gasoline Regulations Act, originally H.R. 4471 and authored by Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-KY). Title II of H.R. 4480 would eliminate the bipartisan mandate under the Clean Air Act that the Environmental Protection Agency set health standards for ozone (or smog) pollution based only on the best medicine and science. It would also impair EPA’s ability to reduce dangerous pollutants from dirty industries, such as oil refining.

Instead, for the first time ever, the cost of pollution reduction would be used to determine how much health protection to require. In other words, air pollution that triggers asthma attacks and respiratory diseases would only be reduced if the polluters say they could afford to clean up.

The passage of this provision also prevents essential clean air regulations from taking effect until at least 2016, using “paralysis by analysis” to block additional health protections.

These clean air protections are essential, as more than 40 percent of people in the U.S. live in areas where air pollution levels threaten their health.

The EPA estimates that by 2020 the Clean Air Act — if properly implemented and enforced — would prevent more than 230,000 premature deaths, 200,000 heart attacks, 17 million lost work days, and 2.4 million asthma attacks per year. Should Clean Air Act requirements be substantially lifted, these numbers would certainly fall, and human and economic suffering would increase.

Some leaders in Congress stood up to big oil to protect Americans’ health by offering amendments to H.R. 4480 that would have protected science-based public health standards. Unfortunately, all of these efforts failed on mostly party line votes.

Ranking Energy and Commerce Committee Member Henry Waxman’s (D-CA) amendment would have allowed the EPA to finalize pollution limits for oil refineries, motor vehicles, or the production of ozone if allowing unchecked emissions would cause “serious harms to human health” or contribute to asthma attacks.

Representative Waxman stated that “if Republicans want to claim that this bill is not an attack on the Clean Air Act and public health, there should be no objection to my amendment.”

His amendment failed today by a vote of 164–249, with 231 Republicans and 18 Democrats voting against it; 2 Republicans and 162 Democrats voted for it.

Representative Bobby Rush (D-IL) offered an amendment that would have uncovered whether H.R. 4480 provisions would reduce gasoline prices — its ostensible purpose. The amendment would have required the Environmental Information Administration (EIA) to assess, within 90 days of its enactment, whether or not H.R. 4480 would lower gas prices. This amendment failed 164–255 with 235 Republicans and 20 Democrats voting against it. 164 Democrats voted for it, with no Republicans.

Representative Gene Green (D-TX) proposed an amendment, which would strike the provision in H.R. 4480 that for the first time ever requires the EPA administrator to consider “feasibility and cost” when establishing public health protection standards for lead, smog, soot and other hazardous air pollutants. The Green amendment would restore the focus of EPA rules to safeguard public health and well-being, as opposed to secure big oil’s health and profits. This amendment failed by a vote of 174–244, with 229 Republicans and 15 Democrats voting against it. 167 Democrats and 7 Republicans voted for it.

The Obama administration warned the House that H.R. 4480 would l “impede progress on important Clean Air Act (CAA) rules to protect the health of American families,” In a policy statement, the administration also suggested it would veto it.

Ten public health and medical associations also opposed these efforts to reverse “a system has worked for more than 40 years to let people know if the air is safe to breathe, and motivate action to improve air quality when it is not safe.” During the debate, Representative Waxman noted that passing the bill with its attacks on air pollution reductions will “make Americans pick up the tab for the oil companies and would make Americans pay that tab with their heath and even their lives.”

If eliminating protection from smog and other air pollutants for millions of children and seniors, is the House Republican leaders’ strategy to reduce gasoline prices, we must question what mission they’re trying to accomplish. Hopefully, this Senate will ignore the House’s plan to undo 40 years of bipartisan air pollution safeguards.

Susie Marshall in an intern with CAP’s energy policy team.