Who You Gonna Believe About Smog's Health Hazards, the Oil Lobby or Doctors & Scientists?

An oil industry lobbying group just released a paper that inadvertently reveals the bankruptcy of Big Oil's attacks on the health basis for more protective national standards for smog pollution. The 8-page paper contends that legions of doctors and scientists are wrong when they say that current smog standards need to be strengthened to protect Americans' health.

The group is called Energy in Depth, which media outlets have rightly characterized as an "oil and gas industry public relations front group." It was founded by the Independent Petroleum Association of America and its funders include BP, Chevron, Shell and Halliburton. The paper is the latest sputtering salvo in Big Oil's crusade to fight the U.S. EPA's proposal to strengthen outdated health standards for smog pollution.

EPA projects that strengthening today's smog standard of 75 parts per billion 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. 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.

It has long been a problem for the oil lobby and other polluting industries that they have no credible evidence to counter the mountains of scientific proof and independent, expert scientific consensus that (1) the current smog standard is unsafe, and (2) the standard needs to be updated to protect all Americans. Numerous medical organizations, including the American Lung Association, American Public Health Association and American Thoracic Society, have said the current smog standard is unsafe and needs to be substantially strengthened to protect Americans.

So Big Oil turned to its own front group to put its best case forward, in an attempt to contradict those medical experts and the enormous health benefits. And that oily case is pitiful.

The oil lobby's paper identifies no doctors or scientists as authors and, bemusingly, lists no authors at all. It just . . . is. The paper was publicized, however, in an Energy in Depth blog post authored by one Steve Everley, who was previously a research assistant for Newt Gingrich, then policy director for Gingrich's now-defunct American Solutions for Winning the Future.

According to Mr. Everley's LinkedIn profile, he is not a scientist. He is not a doctor. He is a "public affairs specialist" and "skilled communicator."

Doctors in lab coats.jpg

The oil industry resorts to Mr. Everley for his skilled communications to oppose the health basis for more protective smog health standards. Mr. Everley obliges by delivering a paper entitled "The Questionable Health Data Behind EPA's Costly New Ozone Rule." The best that can be said about this paper is that Mr. Everley, or Energy in Depth, or some author that chose to remain anonymous, is indeed "questioning" EPA's health data.

The teensy problem for Big Oil is those questions are not backed by any health data or scientific or medical evidence countering or undermining the vast body of science showing today's smog standards to be unsafe and in need of significant improvement. Instead the paper contains these arresting propositions:

  • "EPA may have inflated the benefits of its proposed rule";
  • The paper contends that the health impact from "lost employment" is far larger than what could potentially be associated with higher smog levels, without even engaging the wide range of health hazards caused by smog levels under the current, outdated standard (respiratory effects, cardiovascular effects, central nervous system effects, reproductive and developmental effects, total mortality);
  • "Much of the 'science' behind EPA's latest ozone proposal was actually developed by the EPA itself."
  • The benefits of a protective health standard are not likely to materialize--because areas won't actually ever meet the standard.

The paper does not and cannot back up these propositions. The contentions are easily refuted by the comprehensive body of peer-reviewed medical studies and health data supporting EPA's proposal, fully displayed in a massive administrative rulemaking record compiled by the agency. "Much of the 'science' behind EPA's latest ozone proposal was actually developed by the EPA itself?" Rubbish. The scientific and administrative record, brimming with independent, peer-reviewed studies, belies that shadowy claim, which may play well on the far right-wing Daily Caller website but doesn't hold up to actual scrutiny.

After the paper's title charges that EPA's health data is questionable, what's most telling about the paper is its complete inability to muster any health data or scientific studies backing that charge. Not. One. Study.

The "content" of this weightless paper ends up being a blend of lazy equivocation ("may"), innuendo (EPA conspiracy!) and assertions most notable for their lack of support (no health studies or data contradicting the scientific consensus on the need for stronger smog standards).

In the end, the oil lobby's latest paper does not remotely fulfill the promise of its title: nothing in the paper begins to show the health data justifying more protective smog standards is "questionable."

Big Oil never met a safer health standard for smog pollution it did not oppose. The industry fought the strengthened 1997 smog standard and it fought the lower 2008 standard. Now Big Oil has the chutzpah to invoke that 2008 standard as a reason to fight a protective 2015 standard. Call it hydrocarbon hypocrisy.

We've heard it all before and now we're hearing it again. It's not hard to see why Big Oil had to enlist public affairs specialists rather than doctors and scientists to attack the clear need to update health standards for smog to protect all Americans.

About the Authors

John Walke

Director, Clean Air Project, Climate & Clean Air program

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