The Dirty Coal Guys Take a Few Pages From The Climate Science Denier Playbook

BY ON July 11, 2011

This piece was cross-posted at Think Progress Merchants of Doubt cover

We have entered another period of vocal warming. The political rhetoric in the “debate” over the EPA’s new Mercury and Air Toxics Regulation is falling into a terrible and familiar pattern. Supporters of the Clean Air Act would be well advised to take note. Pro-polluters are beginning to sound like climate deniers.

We shouldn’t dismiss them as hot-headed extremists–that didn’t work too well last time around. Remember when it looked like cap-and-trade was a done deal, and climate deniers had lost momentum? A few loud-mouths have a way of turning many heads.

Just look at the arc this issue is taking. In March, the EPA announced new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards; they have been in the works for 21 years. As we were reminded during testimony in recent Senate subcommittee hearings, it was Administrator Leavitt, in 2004, who told utilities where his (Republican) administration stood on new anti-pollution regulations: “It’s time to start cleaning up.” Time to invest “now” in reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury. Power plant clean up has been a continuous policy under two Democratic and two Republican presidents.

When the EPA announced its new standards last winter, the response was reasoned. Indeed, a letter, published in the Wall Street Journal, signed by CEOs of major utilities supported the regulations as good for the economy.

That was in December.

By June, we were in the midst of such anti-EPA sentiment that a Presidential candidate, Michele Bachman, was emboldened to call for the Mother of All Repeals, the repeal of the Clean Air Act. Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) then picked up the repeal rhetoric.

Suddenly, we’re spinning backwards, to pre-1970 days. Repeal the Clean Air Act? How is such talk even possible–and can it stick?

What’s happening? There’s one very good reason to take vocal warming very seriously: Pro-Polluters are using the same tactics that were used so successfully during the last round of the climate change battle.

From the Pro-Polluter Playbook:

1. Keep repeating falsehoods. Make that: LIES

Coal doesn’t hurt anyone. Mercury is harmless.

Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX) during a hearing: there is no “medical negative” to pollution.

Utility industry lobbyists state that there are “no incremental health benefits associated with” the new standards. They deny that reducing toxics “actually does anything to protect the public health.”

One of those lobbyists, Jeff Holmstead, who now works for Rudy Giuliani’s firm, used to head Bush’s EPA air program (2001-2005). His biography states that he was involved in the passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. As Jeff Walke at NRDC points out, in 2002, Holmstead testified to Congress that “mercury is a potent toxin that causes permanent damage to the brain and nervous system, particularly in developing fetuses.” In 2005, he testified that reducing pollution from power plants would result in “14,100 fewer premature deaths” and other “significant health benefits.”

In 2011, representing the electric industry, Holmstead said: “It is pretty hard to say that [mercury from coal-fired power plants] is a significant public health issue.”

Truth is beside the point.

Steve Milloy tells the Fox News audience that US power plants aren’t a major source of mercury emissions. The EPA states that coal-fired power plants are the largest source– 50%– of manmade mercury emissions. Bush’s EPA made the same statements.

While you’re at it, confuse people about what, exactly, is a fact.

2. Ignore the science.

Lobbyists for the utilities, pro-pollution utility CEOs, and pro-pollution politicians choose to ignore reams of peer-reviewed scientific studies on the health hazards of particulate matter, air toxics and mercury from power plants.

Ignoring the science is one way of silencing scientists’ voices.

3. Denigrate scientists and medical professionals. Undercut their authority.

That’s what was behind Joe Barton’s cheap, folksy shot: “I’m not a doctor…but my hypothesis is” that no one is going to be hurt by mercury. His opinion is as good as any scientist’s, just because he calls it a hypothesis.

When major health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Lung Association, and the American Public Health Association, wrote to express their “shock” at these unscientific assertions, Barton ignored them.

4. Scare people about jobs and the economy–even if you have to lie about it.

Because of the new EPA standards, say the pro-polluters, plants will have to be shut down. People will lose their jobs–and no new jobs will be created. The American economy will suffer further. So will consumers. Regulating pollution is an unaffordable luxury.

Never mind what a few industry experts have to say–publicly, in the Wall Street Journal: Peter Darbee, chairman,president and CEO,PG&E Corp.; Jack Fusco, president and CEO, Calpine Corp.; Lewis Hay, chairman and CEO, NextEra Energy, Inc.; Ralph Izzo, chairman, president and CEO, Public Service Enterprise Group, Inc.; Thomas King, president, National Grid USA,; John Rowe,chairman and CEO, Exelon Corp.; Mayo Shattuck, chairman, president and CEO, Constellation Energy Group; Larry Weis, general manager, Austin Energy

“To suggest that plants are retiring because of the EPA’s regulations fails to recognize that lower power prices and depressed demand are the primary retirement drivers. The units retiring are generally small, old and inefficient. These retirements are long overdue.

Contrary to the claims that the EPA’s agenda will have negative economic consequences, our companies’ experience complying with air quality regulations demonstrates that regulations can yield important economic benefits, including job creation, while maintaining reliability.”

5.  Sow confusion. And reap “undecided”.

Deniers know they don’t need to convince people that coal emissions are poisonous. They only have to confuse them. When people are confused (on any issue), they naturally move to the “undecided” camp. “Undecided” is paralyzing; and gives people an excuse not to act. “Undecided” keeps people quiet.

If you keep repeating the lies, and keep ignoring the science, enough people will become “undecided” about the connection between coal pollution and neurotoxicants. They’ll become “undecided” about the connection between asthma and particulate pollution from coal–no matter what the scientists and doctors say.

6.  Go for Cheap Laughs.

If you make fun of your opponent, you undercut their argument. People get distracted by the joke, and forget the substance.

At Fox News, it isn’t enough to lie. You have to go for cheap laughs, a Fox News specialty. Everything’s a joke. Steve Milloy: if mercury is toxic, then “water should be classified as a neurotoxin.”

Or Dr. Ablow, a psychiatrist, also on Fox News: there is “no evidence” linking particulate pollution from coal-fired plants to asthma.

“It could be the lizard causing asthma just as well.”

7. Count on the anti-confrontational nature of the opposition

Somehow, we are reluctant to put a face on the polluting enemy. And the enemy knows it.

Lisa Jackson did not mention that coal-fired plants are the single biggest source of mercury, during her high-visibility interview with a sympathetic Jon Stewart at The Daily Show. She came across as a solid, responsible, trustworthy citizen–and she hit the dangers of mercury. But why on earth wouldn’t she call out the largest polluters, the dirty coal-fired utilities?

We have yet to vilify the pro-polluting coal plant CEOs, who by now ought to be embarrassed to show up at the golf club. In fact, their more responsible colleagues should be vocally furious that they’re giving the entire industry a black eye.

Any reluctance to play hardball emboldens the politicians who are willing to lie, distort, fabricate, and confuse the public.

So far the public supports a strong EPA and supports the Clean Air Act.

The American Lung Association published results of a recent poll showing that three out of four voters support tougher Mercury and Air Toxics standards.

Coincidentally, Congressman Ed Whitfield’s own websitedisplayed the rather astonishing results of an April poll of visitors to his site: Do you support the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) efforts to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act? 164 people voted “yes”, 45 voted “No” and 3 were unsure.

This is the sort of small irony that gives one hope. (It could also mean that his site was visited by environmentalists wondering why the heck this guy doesn’t think coal affects children’s health?)

The poll results mean this battle is ours to lose. But we’ve many miles to go. The recent Senate vote on EPA’s CO2 authority felt too close for comfort to me.  Look for vocal warming to go up quite a few more notches when Washington convenes after summer vacation–and campaigning begins in earnest.

Support measured in polls is not the same as support measured in activism. Citizens have to re-engage, loudly, with their representatives, telling them via mail, email, tweets and marches, that touching the Clean Air Act is like touching the third rail of the subway. Don’t do it!

We’re trying to get moms activated to protect their children’s health. But we share the air. Everyone needs to join in. If we don’t stop the building momentum of the anti-Clean Air rhetoric, we may get hit with a case of déjà vu all over again.

TOPICS: Coal, Economics, Mercury Poisoning, Politics, Pollution