Big Oil Mounts Campaign to Fight Safe Air for Americans

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Lobbyists for oil companies have launched a costly advertising campaign opposing safe health standards to protect Americans from smog pollution. The American Petroleum Institute, whose members include ExxonMobil, BP and Shell Oil, is lobbying EPA and Congress furiously to block more protective health standards that protect all Americans against unsafe levels of smog pollution. The oil industry's lobbying arm wants to stop the current smog standard from being improved, despite overwhelming agreement by the nation's top medical groups that the standard is unsafe and fails to protect the air that Americans breathe.

The Petroleum Institute advertising blitz is fighting an EPA proposal to strengthen health standards for ground-level ozone pollution, or smog, from the current unprotective level of 75 parts per billion (set by the Bush EPA in 2008) to between 70 and 65 parts per billion.

EPA projects that strengthening a 75 parts per billion smog standard to a level of 65 parts per billion will avoid nearly 1 million asthma attacks among children, 1 million days when kids miss school, 2,300 cases of acute bronchitis among children and over 4,300 premature deaths--every year. Numerous medical groups and many others believe the standard should be strengthened to 60 parts per billion based on strong scientific evidence of continuing harm at 65, and the law's directive to protect vulnerable populations like the elderly and children with an adequate safety margin.

The Petroleum Institute wants to keep the smog health standard at the Bush administration level of 75.

So who thinks smog levels of 75 are unsafe for Americans and supports strengthening the health standard to 60?

  • American Medical Association
  • American Academy of Pediatrics
  • American College of Preventative Medicine
  • American Heart Association
  • American Lung Association
  • American Public Health Association
  • American Thoracic Society
  • Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
  • Children's Environmental Health Network
  • National Association of County and City Health Officials
  • National Association for Medical Direction of Respiratory Care
  • Health Care Without Harm
  • Trust for America's Health
  • EPA's official, independent Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, chartered by Congress.

The Petroleum Institute's lobbying blitz will be built around television, radio, print and online ads. Revealingly, the oil lobbyists refuse to say how many millions of dollars they might be spending to oppose safe air for Americans. They will tell reporters only that they are shelling out "significant resources." ($)

Without any apparent irony, the Petroleum Institute spokesperson actually characterized its campaign as "mission critical" ($) for oil companies. So the oil lobby wants you to know that opposing safer air standards for Americans is critical to the very mission of oil companies. One hopes reporters, shareholders and residents near oil refineries will ask the Petroleum Institute's member companies whether they share that view.

In this post, I will examine the surprising amount of deceptions, dirty little secrets and omissions that the Petroleum Institute manages to pack into a 30-second TV ad. The oil companies' campaign kicked off with an online video that, amusingly, opens with lilting piano notes and a montage showing the pretty blue sky to the left. It should have shown the oil refinery to the right.

The TV ad then takes a cheap shot at "bureaucrats that want to change the rules." The Petroleum Institute knows perfectly well that Congress in the Clean Air Act directed EPA to review smog standards every 5 years and improve them based solely on sound medical science. Indeed, the law prohibits EPA from departing from medical science and basing its decision on compliance costs or industry fear mongering.

The TV ad then touts that smog levels have dropped 18% since 2000. The ad uses that point to springboard to an irrelevant demand that the unsafe standard of 75 remain locked in place.

The hypocrisy at the heart of this maneuver deserves special calling out. One of the main reasons smog levels have continued to drop since 2000 is that EPA updated health standards for smog pollution in 1997 and 2008, which then helped drive cleanup requirements for oil companies, chemical companies, coal plants and other industries.

But guess what? Oil companies fought the strengthened 1997 smog standard and they fought the lower 2008 standard. They fought specific cleanup requirements like cleaner diesel fuels tooth and nail. Just like they are fighting a safer health standard in 2015. Big Oil never met a safer health standard for smog pollution it did not oppose. I'm unaware of the Petroleum Institute ever supporting an EPA proposal to strengthen the smog health standard in the 45-year history of the Clean Air Act.

One can only marvel watching Big Oil celebrate the 75 parts per billion standard today. In fact the same Petroleum Institute lobbyist who fought that 75 standard in 2008 is the same Petroleum Institute lobbyist now promoting the 75 standard--in order to fight a safer standard today.

What did the American Petroleum Institute say in 2007 when it opposed the Bush EPA proposal to lower the smog standard from 84 to 75? That EPA should keep it at 84 ($), the level last updated in 1997. And what did the American Petroleum Institute say in 1997 when it opposed the Clinton EPA proposal to lower the smog standard from 120 to 84? That EPA should keep it at 120, the level last updated in 1979.

Now Big Oil has the chutzpah to invoke that 2008 standard as a reason to fight a protective 2015 standard. Call it serial hydrocarbon hypocrisy.

This graph shows the illogic of the Petroleum Institute's pretense that drops in smog levels are a rational argument for keeping unsafe health standards. Commendable reductions in smog pollution from extremely unsafe levels to still very unsafe levels over a 10-year period provide no justification for fighting safe health standards or keeping unprotective standards today.

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Midway through, the TV ad levels charges that safer smog standards will be "potentially the most expensive regulation ever" and will "risk[] jobs" and "threaten our economy." Note that none of these claims is sourced on-screen. They are just rhetoric and extreme hyperbole.

What the ad does "source" onscreen is an assertion that safer standards "could cost families over $2,000." The source for this absurd claim, however, is a biased report paid for by the National Association of Manufacturers. Independent experts and economists have characterized this particular report as "insane" and "unmoored from any economic reality," due to its wildly exaggerated cost claims and ridiculous methodologies.

The Petroleum Institute TV ad closes with this line about the current smog standards: "They work."

Note the ad never says--and cannot--say that the current smog standards are "safe." Or "protective." Or "healthy." (In fact, the ad seems to go out of its way to avoid making these claims, instead calling the standards "strict.") The ad does not and cannot say a standard of 75 meets the Clean Air Act requirement to protect all Americans with an adequate safety margin.

Instead Big Oil says, "They work." How ambiguously incoherent. The current smog standards don't work to protect all Americans. They don't work to satisfy the law. They don't work to meet the best medical understanding of how much smog pollution is unsafe to breathe.

Guaranteeing and enforcing all Americans' right to safe air is critical to EPA's mission. It is shameful that Big Oil considers it "mission critical" for oil companies to oppose that right and fight safe air for all Americans.