GOP's Dirty Air Hit List Sacrifices Americans' Health

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R–Va.) recently announced his legislative priorities for the upcoming months and they consist of the same old reckless attacks on health and environmental safeguards for all Americans. Creating an apocalyptically-titled hit list of his “Top 10 Job-Destroying Regulations,” Rep. Cantor takes aim at an astonishing twelve clean air safeguards and 5 other labor, environmental and health care standards. But problems with basic arithmetic are the least of the concerns with this "top 10" list.

For every year that these twelve clean air safeguards are blocked by Rep. Cantor and his House GOP colleagues, the harmful consequences would be:

  • Up to 38,600 additional premature deaths;
  • Over 19,000 more heart attacks;
  • Over 205,000 additional asthma attacks;
  • Over 4 million more days when Americans will miss work or school due to the health hazards of air pollution; and
  • The elimination of Clean Air Act authority to reduce dangerous heat-trapping air pollution from the biggest industrial polluters.

This terrible health toll is the consequence of just a single year under the irresponsible House GOP agenda. The truth is, however, that the legislative attacks announced by Rep. Cantor block the various clean air safeguards for longer than one year, in most cases indefinitely.

In this post I will address each of the targeted clean air safeguards and explain the harms and irresponsible consequences that the House GOP’s dirty air agenda would cause.

These twelve clean air safeguards provide Americans with the clean and safe air that we rely on every day so that our asthmatic children can go to school and we are healthy enough to go to work and lead productive lives. Allowing polluters to dump millions of tons of dangerous air pollution into our communities and lungs every year does not create jobs; it just makes people too sick to go to work or school.

The Clean Air Act has been shown, time and time again over its 40-year history, to be one of our nation’s most successful pieces of legislation. The Act not only protects our families from dangerous air pollution, but offers an astonishing return on our nation’s investment in clean air. According to a peer-reviewed EPA study earlier this year, the Clean Air Act is expected to deliver $12 trillion in net economic benefits between 1990-2020. The specific standards Rep. Cantor decries as “job-killing” have been shown to have a net positive increase in job creation, with benefits to Americans that outweigh costs to polluting industries.

The House Republican dirty air hit list reflects a baseless and ideological tirade against clean air protections that would put Americans’ lives at risk while doing nothing to create jobs. American families cannot afford to see these clean air standards rolled back.

Dirty Air Agenda #1 & #2: Health Standards for Smog, Soot and Toxic Air Pollution from Power Plants

Rep. Cantor promises to repeal EPA’s proposed Mercury and Air Toxics Standards [pdf] and the final Cross-State Air Pollution Rule [pdf] for power plants that burn coal and oil. This single legislative assault would result in tens of thousands of premature deaths that these two clean air standards otherwise would prevent every year.

What does the dirty air bill do? Rep. Cantor’s chosen legislative weapon, the TRAIN Act (H.R. 2401), [pdf] would block the power plant Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule indefinitely. Blocking these standards for just one additional year would result in:

  • up to 25,300 lives lost due to smog, soot, and toxic air pollution;
  • more than 11,000 heart attacks;
  • more than 120,000 asthma attacks;
  • over 12,200 more hospital and emergency room visits; and
  • many hundreds of thousands more days of missed work or school.

These figures are drawn from EPA’s projected health benefits for these two standards, found here [pdf] and here [pdf].

The bill also establishes a new requirement that a panel of cabinet members with no environmental expertise review these and numerous other standards issued by EPA. Both EPA and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) already perform this function, making the process nothing more than a delaying tactic and layer of bureaucratic red tape. It is transparently designed to tie the hands of EPA’s health and scientific professionals, slowing or blocking them from doing their job to protect public health. It’s a classic Washington ploy, creating paralysis by analysis, which wastes taxpayer dollars and prolongs Americans’ exposure to dangerous air pollution.

The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will slash power plant smog and soot pollution that travels across state lines. These “good neighbor” provisions will ensure that citizens in downwind states can breathe clean air, just like their upwind-state neighbors. Starting in 2014, the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will save up to 34,000 lives every year [pdf].

EPA estimates that this clean air safeguard will have a net impact creating 700 jobs [pdf]. The agency projects the rule’s benefits to be as high as $280 billion [pdf] every year.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards would sharply reduce power plant emissions of mercury, a dangerous toxin that harms children’s developing brains, along with toxins like arsenic, dioxins, lead and other heavy metals. These standards already are over a decade overdue and, once implemented in 2015, will save up to 17,000 lives every year [pdf].

EPA estimates that these standards would have a net impact creating 9,000 jobs [pdf]. Further, the standards would have health benefits of up to $140 billion every year starting in 2016, with benefits outweighing the utility industry’s compliance costs by 13:1. These job creation and health benefits are in addition to the benefits flowing from the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.

By contrast, Rep. Cantor provides no evidence at all for his assertions that the one recently finalized rule and other not yet finalized rule are destroying jobs or impeding job creation.

Rep. Cantor also asserts these two standards will result in electricity bill increases “in many parts of the country of anywhere from 12 to 24 percent” – but he fails to identify any factual support for the assertion. EPA’s analysis and projections (reviewed by OMB) directly contradict Rep. Cantor’s mere assertions: EPA estimates that the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule could cause average monthly household electricity bills to increase by 1 percent [pdf], and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards could add approximately $3-4 [pdf] to consumers’ monthly electricity bills.

Moreover, a recent report from PJM Interconnection, the nation’s largest transmission operator, concluded that there will be more than adequate electricity resources to maintain a reliable electric grid while meeting these clean air standards. Reserve margins would be maintained at or above target levels.

The Congressional Research Service concludes [pdf] that many of the 40+ year-old coal plants that might retire “are inefficient and are being replaced by more efficient combined cycle natural gas plants, a development likely to be encouraged if the price of competing fuel—natural gas—continues to be low, almost regardless of EPA rules.”

Both reports, and EPA’s own findings, repeatedly stress the enormous monetized benefits from the rule. These enormous health benefits will have a concrete impact on our economy through avoided hospital and doctor visits, fewer missed days of work, and healthier citizens breathing cleaner air. Taken together, these standards have a combined annual benefit of up to $420 billion every year.

Dirty Air Agenda #3-6: Health Standards for Mercury and Other Toxic Air Pollution from Incinerators and Industrial Boilers

House Republicans next take aim at four final mercury and toxic air pollution standards for incinerators and industrial boilers. Incinerators and industrial boilers emit pollutants like lead, benzene, mercury, and cancer-causing dioxins. Rep. Cantor identifies H.R. 2250 [pdf] as the legislative vehicle to permanently delay and weaken EPA’s proposed standards to clean up these dirty facilities.

What does the dirty air bill do? H.R. 2250 is a deadly piece of legislation that sets the stage for endless delay of protections that are already many years late. 

The bill voids standards for both large and small industrial boilers and solid waste incinerators. It adopts a definition of “solid waste” that, among other things, allows industrial facilities in communities across the nation to burn tires, coal waste and used chemicals for energy without controlling or reporting their toxic air pollution, so long as they recovered some amount of energy from the process. Just as tobacco causes cancer whether smoked in a pipe or a cigarette, toxic air emissions from incinerating tires and other industrial materials does not disappear or become safe just because plants recover “energy” from the combustion process. To accomplish these dirty outcomes, the bill must overturn a 2007 D.C. Circuit court decision [pdf].

The bill also pushes back industry compliance dates by at least 3.5 years and alters the Clean Air Act to allow indefinite delay of future standards.

Delaying current compliance deadlines for industry by a minimum of 3.5 years would result in [pdf]:

  • Over 100,000 tons of toxic air pollution, including mercury, toxic metals, and acid gases;
  • Up to 22,750 more premature deaths;
  • 143,000 more asthma attacks; and
  • Over 1 million days when people miss work or school.

For every additional year of delay that H.R. 2250 allows, these numbers only continue to grow.

EPA already has announced it is re-examining aspects of these standards, and has set out a timeline providing industry more than enough time and opportunity to weigh in before re-finalizing the rules by April 2012. EPA has indicated that it does not need or want additional time from Congress. Legislative delays only will hurt Americans’ health.

Rep. Cantor provides no factual support whatsoever for his assertion that “over 200,000 jobs” are “at risk” from these standards. On the other hand, EPA’s analysis, reviewed by OMB economists, projects that these standards will have a net positive impact on jobs, creating an estimated 2,200 jobs [pdf], while achieving the enormous public health benefits that allow Americans to work and go to school and lead healthy lives.

These life-saving standards have overall monetized benefits to our economy that greatly exceed the compliance costs to industry. EPA estimates that the standards will have benefits to the economy of up to $54 billion [pdf] every year starting in 2014, compared with industry compliance costs estimated at only $1.4 billion.

Dirty Air Agenda #7 & #8: Health Standards for Smog, Soot, Mercury and Toxic Air Pollution from Cement Plants

Rep. Cantor plans to push H.R. 2681 [pdf], a deadly piece of legislation aimed at giving cement plants a free pass from cleaning up all of their toxic air emissions and a free pass from controlling emissions that lead to the creation of smog and soot pollution. These emissions include mercury, which endangers children’s developing brains and can lead to loss of IQ points. Cement plants are the fourth largest source of industrial mercury emissions in the United States and they emit high levels of deadly soot pollution. Giving these polluters a free pass has deadly consequences for thousands of Americans.

What does the dirty air bill do? H.R. 2681 would void standards for smog, soot, mercury and other toxic air pollution for cement plants. These standards went into effect in September of 2010. Just like the legislation that would give incinerators and industrial boilers a free pass from cleaning up their toxic air pollution (H.R. 2250), this bill purports to give EPA “more time” to complete standards for cement plants, ignoring the fact that EPA already has completed the standards. The bill also distorts the Clean Air Act by basing toxic air pollution standards for cement plants on the dirtiest plants, rather than the cleanest currently in operation, and weakens the law to allow indefinite delay of these standards.

Toxic air pollution standards for cement plants are already 13 years overdue. H.R. 2681 further delays these already adopted standards by a minimum of 4.5 years. Blocking these standards would result in the following harms every year they are delayed:

  • up to 2,500 premature deaths;
  • 1,500 heart attacks;
  • 1,500 emergency room visits; and
  • over 100,000 missed work days.

The benefits of these health standards significantly outweigh the costs by a margin of up to 19:1 [pdf]. Moreover, EPA analyzed various studies and concluded the standards could create up to 1,300 jobs.

Dirty Air Agenda #9: Health Standards for Smog Pollution

EPA has proposed to strengthen national air quality standards for ground-level ozone, often called smog. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has concluded that standards set in 2008 by the Bush administration are “legally indefensible” and scientifically insupportable [pdf]. EPA has proposed to strengthen the smog standards to fall within the range unanimously recommended by EPA's expert science advisors and the agency's own internal scientists.

EPA estimates that, starting in 2020, the value of improving the smog standard to even 70 parts per billion (ppb), the highest end of the proposed range, would achieve monetized benefits of up to $37 billion per year [pdf], with costs between $19 and $25 billion per year.

Setting a standard at 70 ppb also would produce the following benefits every year:

  • up to 4,300 lives saved;
  • up to 23,000 cases of aggravated asthma avoided;
  • almost 7,000 hospital visits prevented; and
  • 2.6 million days of work or school that people otherwise would miss due to air pollution.

On top of these economic benefits and huge health savings, the historic record contradicts claims that stronger smog standards have impeded economic growth or job creation. A recent study by the Center for American Progress reported that parts of the nation failing to meet current smog standards – thereby necessitating stronger clean air measures – have job growth and employment statistics similar to the rest of the country.

What’s more, the report shows that previous industry claims that ozone standards were unachievable have been shown time and again to be false. Finally, there are business associations that support stronger ozone standards and that have not joined the irresponsible industry lobbying campaign.

Dirty Air Agenda #10: Health Standards for Harmful Soot Pollution

Rep. Cantor’s memo incredibly targets a supposed “job-destroying” clean air standard that EPA has not even proposed or described, much less adopted. This example more than any shows the extent to which House Republicans appear willing to ignore reality in order to carry out the wishes of corporate lobbyists.

What does the dirty air bill do? Rep. Cantor’s memo promises to push H.R. 1633 [pdf], an especially crude attack on science that prohibits EPA from reviewing air quality standards for so-called “coarse particle pollution” or PM10, often known as soot. The bill prevents EPA even from examining new science or proposing new standards about such soot pollution.

Soot pollution is a mixture of materials such as metals, smoke, acids, dirt, pollen, and molds. The mixture is often embedded with toxic substances and infiltrates the airways and lungs. It is emitted by a variety of pollution sources, including power plants, oil refineries and diesel engines. When inhaled, these particles can cause serious health problems, including:

  • Asthma attacks in children;
  • Heart attacks; and
  • Death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes.

Notably, EPA has not made or announced any decisions about new soot standards. EPA has not even proposed, much less finalized, new standards to replace the current soot standards. The agency is currently studying the science behind the soot standards with the assistance of EPA’s independent expert since advisors, as required by the Clean Air Act. After comprehensively reviewing the relevant science and medical literature, the law requires EPA to issue a proposal, even if it proposes to keep soot standards exactly the same. EPA plans to issue a proposal late this year or next year.

When setting clean air standards like these for soot or smog, EPA identifies pollution levels that are unsafe for people to breathe, based upon the best scientific and medical understanding. EPA does not require pollution reductions from any specific sources or sectors pursuant to this standard-setting process. Contrary to what Rep. Cantor and other GOP representatives have claimed, the EPA standards will not regulate “farm dust” nor impose any restrictions on farms. EPA never has adopted pollution control obligations for “farm dust,” and the agency has expressly said it has no intention of doing so. Without hearing from a single scientist or the public, House Republicans are condemning clean air standards that EPA has not so much as proposed.

Dirty Air Agenda #11 & 12: Health Standards for Carbon Pollution from Power Plants and Oil Refineries

The hit list’s final attack on clean air standards targets not yet proposed standards to limit carbon pollution from power plants and oil refineries. 

House Republicans want to force EPA to stop all work to limit life-threatening carbon pollution from power plants, refineries, and other large sources of greenhouse gas pollution. These congressional critics want to allow all new carbon-polluting facilities to be built completely uncontrolled. They would allow big polluters to continue dumping unlimited amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, threatening the health of our children, families, and communities. The science is clear and health professionals agree—carbon dioxide pollution is a serious health issue that already is harming the health and well-being of the American people.

Rep. Cantor claims that the Obama administration is “quickly moving forward” on these standards when the EPA has yet to even issue proposed rulemakings. After EPA issues a proposal, the public will have at least 60 days to comment on the standards, at which point EPA would move towards finalizing standards taking into account the public’s input. This is hardly a rush to judgment. And considering there are no proposals yet, and considering that the law requires EPA to take costs into account when setting carbon pollution standards, there is no factual basis whatsoever for Rep. Cantor’s assertions about the standards’ impacts on the economy and jobs.

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By launching a sweeping and unprecedented legislative assault on these twelve clean air safeguards, House Republicans have cast their lot with corporate polluters over the American people. The House GOP’s dirty air hit list is far worse than any assaults on clean air protections mounted even by former Congressman Newt Gingrich in his infamous Contract on America. The death toll from this House GOP hit list numbers nearly 40,000 every year, carried out by repealing or delaying clean air protections already adopted or imminent.

NRDC’s president, Frances Beinecke, rightly has observed that this GOP jobs plan is “nothing more than a repackaged anti-government screed that seeks to help the pollution industry by repealing environmental and public health standards.”

And EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson put it well here: “Telling the truth about our economy and our environment is about respecting the priorities of the American people. More than 70 percent of Americans want EPA to continue to do its job effectively. Those same Americans want to see a robust economic recovery. We have the capacity to do both things if we don't let distractions keep us from the real work of creating jobs.”

The American people do not support the House Republicans’ dirty air legislative priorities. The public won’t buy the canard that allowing more pollution will create more jobs. But the hit list delivered by the GOP does aim to distract us from job creation and responsible leadership for many months to come.