This spring, as we suffer through allergy season, environmental groups will launch yet another campaign to scare the American public about the quality of the nation’s air. It’s become an annual ritual, led by some of the Obama administration’s closest political allies, to boost the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its regulatory agenda at the expense of states. But this time, don’t be fooled.
Based on past years, the campaign should begin in late April with the release of a so-called report card on air quality by the American Lung Association (ALA). The ALA’s “State of the Air” report will provide national and state-level snapshots, complete with A through F letter grades and rankings of the “cleanest” and “most polluted” cities in the country. At the same time, ALA officials will pitch stories and give interviews to the news media, explaining why the public should be alarmed, and why the EPA should be cracking down on carbon, ozone or anything else related to producing energy, growing the economy and creating jobs.
To really turn up the volume, those claims will be echoed by other groups on the environmental left, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club, who also want the federal government to take over as much environmental regulation as possible from the states. And if history is any guide, you can expect the chorus of green groups to complain the Obama EPA still isn’t being aggressive enough towards state governments, the energy sector and the business community in general.
But in 2016, the environmental groups may have a harder time getting the news media to take the bait. That’s because roughly one year ago, after the 2015 report card on air quality, there was finally a backlash against the desperate and dishonest tactics of the ALA and allied groups.
In Colorado, the ALA was rebuked for falsely claiming Denver’s ozone levels are higher today than they were in the 1970s, when the city was shrouded in a thick “brown cloud.” A Denver Post columnist called the group “brazenly misleading” and the state’s top air quality regulator said “it makes our jobs harder when positive trends are being spun the exact opposite way.” More recently, the Post’s editorial board accused the ALA and other groups of trying to put Colorado’s economy into a “regulatory straitjacket” through harsh EPA limits on ozone.
In Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette accused the ALA of using “statistical malpractice” to create a “bogus” report card. The ALA used a single air pollution monitor next to a steel plant to “alarm and deceive” people living in 12 counties across Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, according to the newspaper. The Gazette editorial even called the ALA’s misinformation “a pollution source in need of cleanup.”
In Indiana, state air quality regulators preempted the ALA by releasing their own report card. “We want people to know … their air is healthy to breathe,” an official with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management told E&E News. In Maryland and Texas, state environmental regulators also pushed back against the ALA’s claims with reports of their own. And in Ohio, a local health official wrote an op-ed to the Cincinnati Enquirer to correct the record. “Everyone should take a deep breath and know that our air has dramatically improved and continues to get better,” she wrote.
Even some rank-and-file employees with the EPA, far away from the agency’s political appointees in Washington, D.C., have lost patience with the deceptive claims of groups like the ALA. “The EPA has nothing to do with that report,” a spokesman for the EPA’s Midwest regional office told the Cedar County Republican of Stockton, Mo. The newspaper called the EPA after Cedar County, home to fewer than 14,000 people, got an “F” on the ALA’s 2015 report card.
Since the Clean Air Act was passed more than 40 years ago, the EPA’s own numbers show massive improvements in air quality. But good news doesn’t scare people, and it certainly doesn’t justify a huge expansion of the federal government’s power over states and the private sector. That’s where the ALA, NRDC, Sierra Club and other activist groups come in. They always have bad news to sell, no matter what the facts say. But that doesn’t mean the press – or the public – should buy it.
Simon Lomax is an associate energy policy analyst with the Independence Institute and a consultant who advises pro-business groups. From 2004 to 2012, he was a news reporter covering energy and environmental policy in Washington, D.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.