Senator Portman's Extreme Approach on Public Health and the Environment


That's the word Senator Portman's recent op-ed uses several times in its attempt to present his actions on public health and the environment as reasonable and moderate.

But in order to sound balanced, the op-ed cherry-picks his record, exaggerates the importance of a couple of relatively minor, moderate bills and rests his argument based on highly questionable assumptions.

The fact is, Senator Portman routinely votes the wrong way when it comes to protecting public health from pollution. According to the League of Conservation Voters, Portman has only voted for the environment 22% of the time over his career, and last year his score on environmental votes was zero. And according to the NRDC Action Fund's WhoVotesDirty website, that he has voted wrong 86% of the time on clean air and climate bills during his time as a senator, earning him the site's "Villain" status.

I suspect that the op-ed was the senator's way of defending himself against an NRDC ad holding the Senator accountable for attacking important new standards the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is developing to protect public health from carbon pollution. The "Clean Power Plan" would set the first-ever limits on how much dangerous carbon pollution our nation's power plants can spew into the air. We have limits on other dangerous pollutants from power plants - mercury, soot, and smog-forming pollutants. It's time to cut down on the carbon pollution as well and the Clean Power Plan brings the federal government and states together in a cooperative way to get the job done.

In March, however, Senator Portman introduced a radical, dangerous amendment to effectively block these new EPA standards by allowing states to choose to opt-out of having to obey the law. As my colleague David Doniger explains, "All a state need do is declare that meeting carbon standards would cost the polluters money - that compliance would "impair investments in existing electric generating capacity."

That isn't "balanced." What if we did that with all Clean Air Act requirements? What if we applied that logic to the Clean Water Act? Ohio's cities would be shrouded in thick pollution and the Cuyahoga River would still be on fire.

We need to cut carbon pollution because it is driving climate change, and climate change threatens just about everything that adds up to our quality of life - from our health to our food supplies to our national security and more. (If you want the "more," click here for our summaries of last year's National Climate Assessment.)

Our ad focused on the health effects of power plant pollution, and the health benefits of cutting the power plant pollution that drives climate change, so that's what I'll address here. Some of our nation's most highly regarded health groups, including the American Lung Association, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, American Public Health Association, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, and more, said in an April 21, 2015 letter that:

"Carbon pollution leads to climate change and threatens Americans' health...These impacts of climate change contribute to asthma attacks and other respiratory problems, cases of heat stroke, and premature deaths. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposed Clean Power Plan will help the nation take important steps toward protecting Americans' health from these threats. Not only would the Clean Power Plan give states flexible tools to reduce the carbon pollution that causes climate change, these crucial tools would also lower other deadly pollutants at the same time, preventing up to 6,600 premature deaths and 150,000 asthma attacks every year by 2030."

The health of the Great Lakes is also at stake. Remember last summer when 500,000 of Senator Portman's Toledo constituents were deprived of water service for almost three days because of the toxic algal bloom on Lake Erie? According to the National Climate Assessment, our nation's most comprehensive and authoritative review of how climate change affects Americans, climate change poses "Increased risks to the Great Lakes" in general and on the particular question of toxic algae blooms, the report says:

"Higher temperatures, increases in precipitation, and lengthened growing seasons favor production of blue-green and toxic algae that can harm fish, water quality, habitats, and aesthetics, and could heighten the impact of invasive species already present."

That's right - rising temperatures fueled by carbon pollution are making toxic algae worse in several ways.

Instead of protecting public health, the Senator seems much more interested in carrying the water for big polluters. Maybe that's no surprise, since polluters have given him nearly $850,000 to get and keep him in office.

In his op-ed he decries what he calls the "many recent EPA regulations on power plants in Ohio." He then says: "Although they may be well intentioned, the cumulative effect of several new EPA mandates are unnecessary job losses, barriers to investment in new Ohio businesses, and higher energy bills for families and factories alike."

But Sen. Portman offers scary statistics that he willfully misrepresents. And that makes his position extreme, no matter that he denies it.

First, there aren't "many" recent standards. There are two new EPA standards addressing power plant pollution that will save tens of thousands of lives and prevent hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks. One of those will limit how much toxic pollution - including the deadly brain poison mercury - can be dumped into the air by power plants. The most exhaustive projection of the impact of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) found that it would save Americans $37 billion to $90 billion in avoided health costs in that first year of implementation, and that stacks up very favorably against a cost of $9.6 billion annually. That's a payoff of $4 - $10 in benefits for every dollar invested in cleanup. These standards will save as many as 11,000 lives and avoid 130,000 cases of aggravated asthma in 2016 alone - making the investment well worthwhile.

The other new standard requires clean-up of power plants whose pollution crosses state lines and adds to pollution-related health problems in other states. The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) will improve air quality for 240 million Americans, saving as many as 34,000 lives and preventing as many as 400,000 asthma attacks annually once full implemented. These standards are estimated to result in $120 to $280 billion in annual health and environmental benefits, compared to the $800 million in annual costs and the $1.6 billion per year in capital investments needed to reduce the pollution.

This is hardly the out-of-control regulatory barrage Senator Portman suggests.

In fact, despite the extraordinary health protections and financial benefits of these two health standards, Sen. Portman voted against both of these life-saving protections in 2012. That's hardly a balanced approach.

The senator in his op-ed also cautions against the supposed high costs of "new" standards, by which he means the EPA's forthcoming carbon standards, which we expect will be finalized in mid-summer.

Now, as David Arkush of the respected consumer watchdog group Public Citizen told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "The Clean Power Plan should lower consumer costs, not raise them, because it will spur improvements in energy efficiency."

NRDC agrees with that view. For example, our most recent analysis showed that Ohioans could cut $903 million off consumers' energy bills in 2020 if the state takes advantage of opportunities to carbon pollution using energy efficiency. That's a savings of $82 per month for residential customers, and Ohio business could save over $500 million. That finding is consistent with an analysis done for NRDC by an independent firm that studies electricity markets. That analysis shows that if states like Ohio rely on energy efficiency as a primary tool to cut carbon pollution, they will also lower consumers' energy bills.

Senator Portman, however, has chosen the viewpoint put forward by polluters from the coal and oil industries. He references a "study" commissioned by the Buckeye Institute which found the EPA plan would raise consumer costs. As a right-wing think-tank funded in the past by the Koch brothers network of donors, the Buckeye Institute is hardly a source of balanced information.

I haven't been able to find any studies Buckeye Institute commissioned on this topic, but Buckeye did recently blog about a NERA Consulting study which examined "potential" impacts of the EPA's plan. NERA conducted its study on behalf of the coal, oil, and mining lobbies - the polluters - and as you might expect, it isn't very balanced. As my colleague Laurie Johnson pointed out at the time, the NERA study "ignores the avoided health and climate change benefits from reducing carbon pollution" and exaggerates the cost of clean energy solutions that can cut carbon cheaply.

Another study the Senator points to was commissioned by the Ohio Public Utilities Commission (PUCO) to explore one of several options for cutting carbon pollution: shifting from coal to natural gas. The PUCO study did not examine options like energy efficiency and renewable energy, other ways states cut carbon cheaply. As a result, it is easy for people like Senator Portman to twist the PUCO study findings to argue against the carbon standards, as my colleague Sam Williams pointed out in the Toledo Blade earlier this year.

In fact, when Ohio asked for an analysis by PJM (the organization that oversees the regional electricity grid that serves Ohio and neighboring states), the grid experts found that including energy efficiency and renewables will sharply cut compliance costs. As Williams explains, PJM found that "in Ohio--as well as all the other states in the grid operator's footprint--energy costs dip when efficiency and renewables are brought in as the heavy artillery to fight carbon pollution." Let's take note: the study the state asked for says energy costs can drop-if it turns to clean energy.

Clean energy is the way forward - to cut carbon, and to create new economic opportunities. It is the way to create thousands of new jobs for Ohioans - jobs no one can send overseas. You need skilled workers and small businesses to install the energy-efficient solutions, and NRDC's analysis found that 8,600 new efficiency-related jobs would be created if Ohio takes the smart pathway to meeting its Clean Power Plan target. That means continued investment in a growing sector in Ohio's economy. According to a survey by the clean tech business group Environmental Entrepreneurs, 89,000 Ohioans are already employed in the clean energy sector in the state.

But none of this good stuff - better health protection, better climate protection, and a stronger Ohio economy - will happen if Sen. Portman's "let the polluters off the hook" proposal were to become law.

Clearly, there are good solutions out there that will help reduce the threat of carbon pollution and climate change. Instead of just protecting polluters, Senator Portman could--and should--be a champion for all Ohioans, not just the polluters, by promoting a smart, state-designed plan to meet carbon pollution standards in a way that protects public health, creates clean energy jobs, lowers bills and grows the state's economy. He should stop trying to kill the Clean Air Act in Washington. And he should use his influence as one of Ohio's senior politicians to get the state legislature to lift the bad law adopted last year that froze Ohio's efficiency and renewable energy investments.

Pursuing those approaches on the Clean Power Plan would make good on the Senator's desire to be - in a word - balanced.


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