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Derrick Z. Jackson

Blowing smoke on warming, clean air

By Derrick Z. Jackson
October 24, 2009

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CORPORATE HOT air may be killing us in the fight for clean air. For evidence, let us go back 20 years, when the Edison Electric Institute, the lobbyist for America’s electric companies, opposed clean air amendments, saying the retooling of plants would be “unnecessarily expensive.’’ Dave Swanson, an institute senior vice president, claimed the provisions to fight acid rain would cost so much that “the total cost to consumers from enactment to 2010 could reach nearly $120 billion.’’

There has been $120 billion in costs, but not the kind Swanson was talking about. This week, the National Research Council of the National Academies Academy of Sciences released a stunning report requested by Congress, saying fossil fuel burning costs Americans at least $120 billion a year in health costs. The study’s authors said the costs include the premature deaths of nearly 20,000 people.

The report’s authors called these “hidden’’ costs that government officials and other decision makers, including electric companies, may not recognize. They said there was little doubt that the $120 billion “substantially underestimates’’ the damages from US energy production and use because it did not include the harm to ecosystems and the effects of climate change and other pollutants, such as mercury. “Our analysis does indicate that regulatory actions can significantly affect energy related damages,’’ the report said.

The report was historically kind. During the eight years of the Clinton administration, there were attempts to show how the health benefits of air pollution regulations far outweighed the costs. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner estimated in 1996 that revamping air quality standards would prevent 20,000 premature deaths and save the nation - you guessed it - $120 billion in health costs. “The scientific evidence tells us that the current standards fail to provide adequate health protection,’’ Browner said.

Scientific evidence on the environment was buried in the dark ages of President Bush, aided by the toxic $2.6 billion in lobbying by energy companies since 1998. Energy companies also gave Republicans 72 percent of their $304 million in campaign contributions from the 2000 through 2008 election cycles, in data from the Center for Comprehensive Politics. Much of this money was meant to retard regulations that would cost them money, regardless of the cost to the rest of us.

Fortunately, the climate change science is so solid that several energy companies as well as some lobbyist groups such as Edison, have decided to negotiate with the Obama administration, its revamped EPA, and the Democratic majority in Congress. Some have taken the extraordinary step of pulling out of the US Chamber of Commerce over the chamber’s ostrich opposition to climate change legislation being debated on Capitol Hill. The chamber is still mired in a Bush-era mentality, with one spokesman calling for a debate such as the 1920s Scopes monkey trail pitting evolution against creationism.

The chamber is the nation’s top lobbyist, spending $35 million in the third quarter and $500 million since 1998. It has distanced itself from the Scopes remark, but it remains utterly unrepentant in fighting just about everything the Obama administration proposes. In a letter last week, its chief operating officer, David Chavern, wrote that calls for companies to pull out of the organization are being organized by “our normal adversaries - trial lawyers, activist unions, environmental extremists, etc.’’

That must sound pretty funny to “environmental extremists’’ Exelon, Pacific Gas and Electric, Public Service Company of New Mexico, Apple, and Mohawk Fine Paper, the companies that have so far pulled out of the chamber.

What is not funny is that the nation’s biggest lobbyist, representing 3 million companies, is trying to kill cleaner air with hot air. Given the human toll, the chamber is the extremist, with the burning of fossil fuels ever more a dirty bomb.

Clarification: A reference to “bonuses’’ in my last column about Wall Street excesses should have said “total compensation.’’

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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