Is The EPA Really A“Cemetery”?
When you hear a politician say something a little dramatic, such as, “It’s a cemetery for jobs at the EPA,” a phrase uttered recently by Texas Governor and aspiring presidential candidate Rick Perry, most people think, “Well, he’s being populist. He wants to get elected.”
But that begs the question: is he being populist? Is there a sizable mass of American voters that really longs for pre-environmental regulation days? You know…those salad days when American rivers were so full of flammable chemicals they would burn when lit, when drinking water was loaded with hexavalent chromium and all sorts of other carcinogenic and neuro-toxic goodies, and the smoggiest of days in some U.S. cities could kill asthmatics?
Perry’s campaign spokesperson seems to think so. “If elected president, the governor’s energy priorities will be centered around scaling back the EPA’s intrusive, misguided and job-killing policies, which will empower states to foster their own energy resources without crippling mandates,” the spokesperson said.
Now, Perry isn’t the first politician to dislike the EPA. Politicians of both parties have grumbled at the agency now and then, but grumbling is a bit different from actively campaigning against it.
So one has to wonder where Governor Perry and his people dug up the idea that Americans are against the EPA. It’s certainly not from polls…not even Republican-backed polls.
A recent study conducted by the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies for the League of Conservation Voters found that 71 percent of Americans wish the EPA would mandate reductions in carbon dioxide emissions (even when the politically charged words “climate change” were used), while only 17 percent are strongly opposed to that idea.
Public Opinion Strategies performed analysis on the overall results, and some interesting trends emerged:
Political affiliation. When the numbers are stratified by political party, 89 percent of Democrats support stronger EPA carbon dioxide rules, 72 percent of Independents are supportive, and 55 percent of Republicans say “yes.”
Ethnicity. African-American voters are most likely to support stronger EPA carbon rules at 86 percent. Eighty-five percent of Latino voters show support, while 68 percent of white voters say “yes.”
Urban versus rural. Among city residents, 69 percent support the EPA’s rules on carbon, 72 percent of suburbanites show support and 66 percent of rural residents are on board.
Education level. Among college-educated Americans, 75 percent are supportive, and among those with no college education, 68 percent are in favor.
So while opinion appears to be somewhat stratified by party affiliation, the biggest differences show up not by personal demographics, but according to where you get your news:
- Among Americans who watch CNN, 87 percent support the EPA and nine percent oppose;
- MSNBC: 86 percent support, and 13 percent oppose;
- ABC, CBS, NBC (combined): 81 percent support, and 17 percent oppose;
- Non-TV news watchers: 73 percent support, and 25 percent oppose; and
- Fox News: 49 percent support, and 47 percent oppose.
So it’s safe to say that a majority – in most cases a large majority – are with the EPA on regulating greenhouse gasses to protect the environment. So why does the political rhetoric sometimes slyly imply that the EPA is under attack from “all Americans” when it’s clearly not? When even a majority – if only a slim one – of conservative Fox News viewers backs the EPA on carbon emissions?
Public Opinion Strategies seems equally puzzled, concluding that, “Despite the rhetoric coming from most of the Republican presidential candidates, this poll demonstrates what previous research has consistently shown: Americans across the country – including Republican voters – trust the EPA to limit global warming pollution.”
Perry isn’t the first GOP candidate to call for dismantling the EPA. Back in February, Newt Gingrich said that Congress should dismantle the agency, calling it “a tool of ideologues” and blaming it – and pretty much only it – for the economic crisis the country is currently in.
That time, too, the suggestion fell on crickets.
Shortly after Gingrich’s comments, Opinion Research Center International performed a similar poll of Americans, and found that a super-majority of Americans – including more than 60 percent of Republicans – strongly disagreed with Gingrich. Said Graham Hueber, senior project manager at the Center, said, “The poll findings reflect strong bipartisan support both for the EPA in general and also for its playing a vigorous role in fighting air pollution. There is no evidence in the polling data to suggest that Americans have any appetite for dismantling an agency that they see as protecting the health of themselves and their families,” he added.
Only 18 percent of Americans want Congress to block the EPA’s role in making and enforcing pollution regulations. Opinion Research Center’s study found that 63 percent of Americans actually want the EPA to do more to protect air and water.
When the phrases “global warming” and “climate change” are removed from the polling methodology and the language is more about pollution in general, public opinion comes up even stronger on the side of the EPA. Earlier this year, the American Lung Association commissioned a study that was jointly conducted by Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Republican polling firm Ayres, McHenry & Associates. Results? Fully three quarters of voters support the Clean Air Act, putting them diametrically opposite members of Congress currently trying to limit the EPA’s authority to update and enforce air pollution standards, including not only carbon dioxide but also mercury, smog, and fuel efficiency standards.
Does American opinion matter? Apparently not.
On September 23, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the TRAIN Act (Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation) in a 249-169 vote. The bill blocks two provisions of the Clean Air Act from going into effect: the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.” The bill is unlikely to clear the Senate, and President Obama has said he would veto it should it find his way to his desk.
“While the Administration strongly supports careful analysis of the economic effects of regulation, the approach taken in H.R. 2401 would slow or undermine important public health protections,” the White House said.
Opponents of the Clean Air Act claim it’s a job killer (just as Rick Perry claims the EPA is a “job cemetery.) This is a tad confusing, since the Clean Air Act has been in place since 1970 (it was amended in 1990 with strong bipartisan support), which means that the U.S. economy has demonstrably been able to thrive under the Clean Air Act.
As the White House noted in a press release following the House’s passage of the TRAIN Act, historical evidence demonstrates that “Strong environmental protections and strong economic growth go hand in hand.”
Pro-environment Republicans seem just as mystified by their anti-EPA colleagues as everyone else. Back in June, when the Supreme Court reaffirmed the EPA’s authority to regulate the Clean Air Act, the group Republicans for Environmental Protection lauded the decision.
“For the second time in four years, the nation’s highest court has plainly ruled that EPA is authorized to limit greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. Climate change skeptics in Congress and elsewhere have repeatedly insisted that EPA has no such authority, in spite of the court’s 2007 decision that it does. Now that the court has spoken again, it’s time for EPA critics to stop whipping a dead horse,” said David Jenkins, REP’s VP for government and political affairs.
It’s not like the science behind the Clean Air Act is dicey. You’d be hard-pressed to find a health professional who wouldn’t say with absolute certainty that the dirtier the air is, the more people, livestock and vegetation will die. The science is irrefutable…as is the grim historical precedent.
- In 1952, London, England experienced the worst smog on record. Called the “Great Smog” or “Big Smoke,” it was caused by a peculiar
mix of weather activity coupled with an unrestrained amount of airborne pollutants from cars, home heating and industrial sources. The peak of the event lasted from December 5 to December 9, and the entire city was covered with a thick gray haze that even seeped into homes around closed windows and doors. Between 4,000 and 6,000 people died as a direct result of the smog, and 25,000 were sickened. The event led directly to the UK’s Clean Air Act of 1956.
- St. Louis, Missouri had a similar episode in 1939, mostly due to large-scale burning of bituminous (soft) coal for home heating and industrial use. While the city had attempted to put restrictions on businesses in terms of emissions as early as 1893, one of the biggest polluters, the Heitzberg Packing and Provision Company, appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which set aside the city’s attempt to limit emissions. As a result, in November of 1939, a meteorological event known as“Black Tuesday” occurred, covering the city in a thick black fog that lasted for nine days. Skillful reporting on the events leading up to smog earned the St. Louis Post Dispatch a Pulitzer in 1940, and environmental rules mandating the use of harder, cleaner-burning coal were enacted immediately following the event.
- A smog event in Donora, Pennsylvania in 1948 killed 20 people (and 800 farm animals), hospitalized 600 and sickened 7,000. The air was so bad that the city ultimately had to shut down all manufacturing activity until weather conditions changed.
So is there anyone out there who really believes that these were “the good old days?”
The Clean Air Act is about more than just human and livestock health. Smog is known to negatively affect crop yields: in parts of the world without clean air restrictions, crop yields have been measured to be 25 to 30 percent lower than in regulated countries. As the world’s population increases and the amount of arable land declines, lowering crop yields by chucking clean air regulations would appear to be counter to the long-term survival of the human race.
Ironically, as Rick Perry campaigns hard against the EPA, he also claims credit for improving air quality in Texas. This one is a head scratcher, as both the EPA and outside analysts say the small improvements seen in the quality of Texas’ air are largely due to the very Clean Air Act and federal regulations that Perry shakes his fist against, and that improvements in air quality in Texas mirror improvements in most other dirty-air states, thanks to…wait for it…the Clean Air Act.
“EPA officials and independent analysts outside government said that Mr. Perry was claiming credit for improvements in air quality brought in large measure by the very federal laws he has resisted and railed against, and that air pollution in Texas remains worse than in nearly every other state,” wrote the New York Times.
So peculiar is Mr. Perry’s rhetoric against the EPA – when evidence shows that many of the fights he has picked in the press and in court are counter to Texas’ best interests – that many environmentalists even speak of the days under former president and former Texas governor George W. Bush with fond memories. As Governor of Texas, Bush not only lacked the animus toward the EPA that Perry seems to proudly strut, he tightened clean air rules in the state of Texas, putting limits on emissions from old coal plants and planting the seeds for Texas’ growing dominance in wind energy.
In the meantime, while it waits for the ultimate fate of the TRAIN Act, passed by the House but awaiting action in the Senate and, should it pass in that chamber, on the desk in the Oval Office, the House of Representatives is now going to bat against the EPA on behalf of the concrete industry, which grumbles that rules requiring it to reduce emissions and mercury from its plants will cost it money.
But the fact remains that, overwhelmingly, Americans would like to breathe. Sure, they’d also like to see more jobs and low unemployment – something we had for decades under the Clean Air Act – but as Senator Barbara Boxer recently said, “If you can’t breathe, you can’t work.”