House Keeping Lesson for GOP: Dirty Lost, Clean Won

This week orientation is underway for U.S. House freshman and one lesson should not be lost on incoming members: voters are not rewarding extremism, including on energy and the environment.

On election day I told you about 10 races to watch to determine if the next Congress would have fewer dirty air villains and more clean air heroes. I’m happy to report that, even though control of the House stayed the same, six of these 10 dirty air villains were defeated.  What’s more, of all the 16 Republicans defeated or currently trailing in their races, a majority of them were dirty air villains who had voted against clean air protections 100% of the time.    

The message should be clear that extremists out of step with their constituents on the range of issues, including clean air and energy, and were sent packing as a result. And even though Republicans held the House, they lost ground there nonetheless, just as they did in the Senate and at the state level even as they were failing to retake the White House. 

Let’s look at how those ten races to watch turned out. Current vote counts suggest that six out of ten of these races will go to the cleaner candidate. Voters ousted Reps. Allen West (FL-18), David Rivera (FL-26), Joe Walsh (IL-08), Ann Marie Buerkle (NY-24) and Francisco Canseco (TX-23). And if the current lead holds, Dr. Ami Bera will take the seat currently held by Dirty Air Villain and Flat Earther Dan Lungren (CA-07).

While the 113th Congress will have between 79 and 85 new members, only 26 incumbents appear to have actually lost. Of the Republicans who lost, an outsize portion — ten out of sixteen – were Dirty Air Villains. [1] Clean Air Heroes fared much better.  In fact when you discard the three Clean Air Heroes who lost to other clean candidates in California’s new “top-two” voting system, only one of the seven incumbent Democrats who lost was a Clean Air Hero. [2]

Some Republicans, like vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, take continued control of the House as a public mandate for GOP business as usual. However, to do so is to miss the warning signs about eroding public support for extremism within the party from the Tea Party and other sources. The Republicans maintained control of the House through contorted gerrymandering even though a majority of American voters chose Democratic candidates.  This sleight of hand will be slight protection unless the party rejects the anti-environmental that led the House to vote against the environment 316 times in a single (unfinished) Congress. 

 What does this tell us? That trying to appease the polluters who fund campaigns rather than voters who want clean air and clean energy is not a winning strategy. Make no mistake, in competitive House races the dirtiest members of both parties were the ones putting themselves at risk.   

[1] Dirty Air Villains: Bono Mack, Buerkle, Canseco, Cravaack, Guinta, Lungren Rivera, Schilling, Walsh, West. Not villains: Bartlett, Bass, Biggert, Bilbray, Dold, Hayworth. As of this writing, Bilbray, Lungren and West were all trailing in the vote count.

[2] Clean Air Heroes Berman, Richardson and Stark lost to other Democrats. Hero Sutton lost to Dirty Air Villain Renacci. Losing Democrats who were not heroes: Baca, Boswell, Chandler, Critz, Hochul, Kissell.

Tensions in West Virginia Echo National Debate: Will Polluters Face Reality?

When a group of Senators tried to kill standards that protect Americans from mercury, arsenic, and other toxic pollution from power plants, 53 Senators stood up for our health and preserved the standards.

There were many heroes that day, but one really stood out to me: Senator Jay Rockefeller.

Senator Rockefeller represents West Virginia, and though coal companies have often had a stranglehold on state politics, Rockefeller gave a clear-eyed speech from the Senator floor that set the record straight.

“The shift to a lower-carbon economy is not going away, and it’s a disservice to coal miners and their families to pretend that it is,” he said. “We need to focus squarely on the real task of finding a long-term future for coal that addresses legitimate environmental and health concerns.”

Back in West Virginia’s capital, the Charleston Gazette covered the speech on its front page with a headline declaring: Jay to Coal: ‘Face Reality.’ The paper endorsed Rockefeller’s position with an editorial called, “Go forward, not back, on coal.”

I spent a lot of time in West Virginia as a kid. My grandfather was a minister there, and we attended his services every weekend. I remember how proud he was of his state and its long history of rugged independence. In many ways, West Virginia is a place apart. Its craggy ridges and hollows, music and culture, and long tradition of coal mining give it a unique flavor.

Yet the debate raging in the state right now echoes the tensions running through the 112th Congress and the current election cycle.

Will polluting industries continue to resist public health safeguards at every turn? Will energy companies keep looking backward or will they start embracing change? Will we elect leaders who represent special interests or ordinary citizens?

Dirty fuel companies are pulling out all the stops to maintain the status quo, both in West Virginia and around the nation. They have saturated West Virginia air waves with ads saying coal is under siege by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The truth is coal is struggling because of market forces, not clean air standards. The President of Appalachian Power recently told the Charleston Gazette, “Nobody is building any new coal [plants]. The economics just aren’t there. Gas is just so cheap. … I don’t think anybody is going to build a coal plant, given natural gas prices. It’s just economics.”

You don’t hear many coal executives acknowledging this reality. As Rockefeller said in his speech to the Senate, “The reality is that many who run the coal industry today would rather attack false enemies and deny real problems than find solutions. Instead of facing the challenges and making tough decisions like men of a different era, they are abrogating their responsibilities to lead.”

West Virginians—and all Americans—deserve leaders who will face the facts and prepare for a better, more sustainable future. Leaders who will help coal miners and power-plant operators train for the low-carbon economy. Leaders who will promote responsible energy development and protect our kids from toxic air pollution at the same time.

Rockefeller has proven capable of that kind of leadership. I don’t always agree with him, but I know his vote and his comments last Wednesday will help lead his state into the future. It’s time we listen to that wisdom and elect more lawmakers who can lead us into the cleaner future.






Mitt Romney’s Toxic Politics

This week Mitt Romney dove quite publicly into the choppy waters of environmental policy for the first time as the presumed GOP presidential nominee. He flailed and sank to a new low.

On the eve of a Senate vote on whether to repeal life-saving mercury and toxic air pollution standards for power plants, Mr. Romney issued a statement saying he opposed the safeguards—putting him squarely on the side of the polluters.

Luckily the majority of Senators didn’t listen to Mr. Romney, and the dirty measure failed to pass — with five Republicans among those voting down the repeal. But Mr. Romney’s decision to enter this debate shows just how captive he is to corporate polluters and extreme Tea Party special interests. When it comes to environmental policy, Mr. Romney has yet to move a millimeter toward the middle, whatever his apologists may be predicting.

His position on these standards certainly won’t help ordinary Americans. The safeguards he opposed will protect children and the unborn against mercury and lead pollution that permanently damages their developing brains and nervous systems. They will also reduce more than 80 other toxic air pollutants from power plants including arsenic, cancer-causing dioxins, acid gases and heavy metals. Cutting down on these pollutants will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, nearly 5,000 non-fatal heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks every year by reducing dangerous air pollution emitted by power plants that burn coal and oil.

By suddenly speaking out against these safeguards, Mr. Romney flip-flopped from positions he had taken as Massachusetts Governor. Back then, he spoke in unequivocal terms about the destructive impact of mercury pollution and supported sharp reductions in the amount of mercury pollution power plants can spew.

But this week, Mr. Romney did more than reverse course and turn his back on the facts he had previously embraced.  He defended his new position with deceptive half truths. The first misleading statement he made was that the new standards will cost more than $1,500 for every one dollar reduction in mercury pollution. 

In reality, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards deliver up to $90 billion in annual benefit to the American people. For every $1 spent by industry to comply, the standards will deliver up to $9 in economic and health benefits to Americans.

How did Mr. Romney manage to concoct a different number? By focusing only on one pollutant: mercury. Romney was ignoring the nearly 80 other hazardous air pollutants that the health standards will reduce, including arsenic, lead, dioxins, heavy metals, acid gases and deadly soot pollution. Installing the pollution control equipment required to reduce all of these toxic air pollutants from power plants, as the Clean Air Act and courts require, will necessarily reduce significant amounts of many forms of dangerous air pollution that causes asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, and even premature deaths. Those pollution reductions are where the standards’ enormous health and economic benefits come from. It is those benefits that the Romney statement dishonestly chose to ignore.

Mr. Romney’s argument did not even pass a basic logic test. His cost-benefit criticism was the equivalent of saying a car costs $15,000 for every $10 spark plug you receive. But in reality you get the whole car for your money — just as Americans receive the overwhelming health benefits from reducing all toxic air pollution, not just mercury pollution, from power plants. And with the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards delivering benefits to the public that outweigh industry compliance costs by a factor of nearly 10 to 1, it’s like the American people are getting a $15,000 car for only $1,500. And that includes the spark plug.

Second, Mr. Romney claimed that EPA “admits” that it is trying to block the construction of any new coal plants. This is patently false, and indeed, the new standards can be attained using equipment that coal plants are able to deploy and are using today.  I hope reporters will challenge Mr. Romney to back up this claim with evidence, because the truth is EPA has never claimed what Mr. Romney charged.

This just raises the valid question why Mr. Romney feels the need to resort to falsehoods. If he has the courage of his political convictions to condemn important health safeguards like these, then he should be able to defend his position with uncomfortable truths rather than convenient untruths.

And finally there is the question of Mr. Romney condemning health standards that will protect children and the unborn.

Mr. Romney is a pro-life politician. One of Mr. Romney’s fellow pro-life Republicans in Congress, Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, also strongly opposes the mercury and air toxics standards. He has voted to abolish the standards. Concerned by this stance, some pro-life evangelical Christian groups criticized Mr. Shimkus and pointed out that part of being pro-life should mean protecting the unborn from the brain and nerve damage caused by neurotoxic mercury pollution. Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) retorted that “[t]he life in pro-life denotes not quality of life but life itself.”

Does Mr. Romney believe this too? Does he not care whether children enjoy a “quality of life” free from permanent brain and neurological damage that contribute to learning disabilities?

Mr. Romney hasn’t addressed the sweeping consequences of blocking safeguards against mercury and toxic air pollution—what it would do to pregnant women worrying about their babies, children struggling in school, grandparents suffering from cardiac disease, or the other millions of Americans breathing in this dangerous pollution. But the White House and most Senator recognize what’s at stake here, and they stood up for these vital safeguards.

The fact that Romney took a stand for corporate polluters instead reveals what kind of president he would be. He would not represent the interests of ordinary Americans who expect the law to protect their health. He would cave to the conservative extremists in his own party, the Tea Party, and corporate polluters.

Why this Election Matters: Romney and GOP Lawmakers Choose Polluters, Not Kids

I have two kids in elementary school, and over the years, I have met many children coping with learning disabilities. Some have a hard time paying attention, some have trouble with fine motor tasks like handwriting, and some have limited language skills. Each one of these issues makes it harder for kids to thrive in school, and I know their parents do whatever they can to help them succeed.

Unfortunately they don’t have allies in Mitt Romney or other GOP leaders in Washington.

There are many causes of learning disabilities, but one proven contributor is exposure to mercury and lead—potent neurotoxins that can impair children’s ability to think and learn. Obama Administration proposed standards to reduce mercury and lead pollution from coal-fired power plants.

But this week, Senator James Inhofe (OK-R) introduced a bill to repeal those standards. On Tuesday evening, Romney joined Inhofe’s crusade to make life easier for dirty power plants.

That’s right. Romney and Inhofe would rather let big polluters off the hook than protect our kids from a toxin that causes developmental delays and other serious conditions. So do the 46 Senators who voted on Wednesday to block the mercury and air toxin standards.

These leaders are completely out of step with what ordinary people care about: the health of our families. The mercury and air toxics standards will deliver up to $90 billion in annual benefits to Americans by preventing every year up to 130,000 asthma attacks, nearly 5,000 heart attacks, and 11,000 premature deaths, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

This attack on clean air safeguards shows exactly what’s at stake in this election. House Republicans have cast more than 200 votes to undermine public health and environmental standards over the past year, but their reckless efforts to dirty our air and water have been blocked by the slim Democratic margin in the Senate. The White House also threatened to veto many of these attacks.

If the November election ushers more anti-environment lawmakers into Congress—and the White House—we could lose a critical line of defense between our families and dangerous polluters. Bills like Inhofe’s could become law, and our kids will be exposed to more mercury, arsenic, lead, and countless other toxins.

And our job as parents will get a lot harder. Like most moms, I try to keep my kids healthy. I take them to their checkups, I exercise with them, and I make them eat vegetables even if they don’t like them. But I can’t go down the street and tell a power plant to clean up its mercury. I know, because my parents tried to clean up the plant that stood next to my elementary school. It released so much pollution that the paint on the teachers’ cars literally blistered. But despite my mom’s best efforts, parents couldn’t change the power company. Quite the opposite: the school closed down, not the plant. 

No matter how dedicated our PTAs are, there are some fights we can’t win alone. We need the government to step in and set the standards that make companies clean up their act.

Romney doesn’t agree. Or apparently he doesn’t agree this year. But back in 2003 when he was governor of Massachusetts, he proudly boasted about his state’s new mercury standards to clean up power plants.

These days Romney is changing his spots to blend in with an increasingly radicalized GOP. Many of my relatives vote Republican, and I know the GOP has a long tradition of environmental protection. It was President Nixon, after all, who signed the Clean Air Act in 1970 and President Bush who made it stronger in 1990.

But the party has shifted in the past few years. Senator Inhofe used to be the outlier on energy and environmental issues—the wacky uncle at the reunion rambling on about the “climate hoax.” But as Inhofe’s former Communications Director Marc Morano told the National Journal, “Now he is the new normal. He is the new mainstream.”

That’s an alarming insight, because Inhofe doesn’t represent the Republican values of conservation. He represents corporate polluters. His number one contributor over the years was the oil and gas industry: $1,390,996. His number two contributor was electric utilities to a tune of $471,067. Inhofe even sang the praises of the dirty Koch brothers as far back as 1991, long before they became a driving force in the GOP campaign against clean air safeguards.

The November elections could sweep in more Inhofe allies, making it easier for lawmakers to strip away more of the standards that protect our children from pollution. Consider a vote for an pro-environment candidate the latest prescription for your kids’ health.



Energy a Weapon in Dueling Campaign Speeches

When the two major party presidential candidates deliver competing addresses at the same time in the same battleground state, you know the campaign is really heating up. Last week, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama turned up the temperature with much-hyped dueling economic speeches in Cincinnati and Cleveland, Ohio, respectively.

If Thursday’s speeches are any guide, the two campaigns intend to use energy policy as an example of their competing visions for America’s future, rather than an area in which common ground might be found and progress achieved.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s speech centered on the thesis that the President’s policies have hindered job creation throughout the economy. The energy sector was one example, though not a headliner for his speech. Romney touched on coal, gas and oil, saying that the President has made it harder to get these fuels out of the ground. He conveniently ignored the data showing increasing production of oil and gas since Obama’s been in office. Romney also so badly wants the Keystone XL pipeline that he promised to permit it on his first day in office and to build it himself if he had to. (While the entertainment value of seeing Mitt Romney single-handedly build an oil pipeline might ease some of the staunch opposition, it would – alas – not address all substantive concerns about the project). Absent from the discussion was any mention of the clean energy.

In contrast, President Obama declared from the beginning that he sees energy as a path toward creating “strong, sustained growth” and generating “good, middle-class jobs.” He devoted a chunk of the speech to his specific energy agenda – mentioning natural gas, nuclear, and coal before chiming in with renewable energy, electric cars and energy efficiency, an “all of the above” approach that disappointingly put clean energy at the bottom. But what was most notable was the way that he wove the need for a sane and modern energy policy throughout the speech. Listening to Obama, you’d never realize that energy has become such a divisive, ideological, litmus-test of an issue.

Perhaps, that is the silver lining of the dueling speeches. Energy policy doesn’t have to be divisive. A majority of Americans are united in their support for clean energy and reduced pollution. Candidates shouldn’t use energy policy as a weapon to score political points. Instead of creating and enlarging gaps among us, politicians can and should try to find common ground and begin making progress on an issue that everyone agrees is important.