President Obama’s decision early this month to side with anti-regulation business interests against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to stop a plan to tighten smog regulations comes during an election cycle in which Obama has received campaign donations from top polluters, and only weeks after his chief of staff met with anti-regulation industry trade associations.
According to The Hill, on August 15, White House Chief of Staff William M. Daley met with the heads of several business groups with a history of spending big bucks on legislative outcomes: theAmerican Chemistry Council, American Petroleum Institute, the Business Roundtable, National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Since July 2009, the five trade groups collectively gave over $215 million to the major parties, political action committees and candidates, and 60 percent of lobbyists hired by the groups have worked in a federal agency or Congress, according to Open Secrets.
Meanwhile, Obama for America, the president’s reelection group, received money from a range of heavy polluters, according to his July quarterly campaign disclosure. Of the top twenty air polluters, according to the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, seven donated to the campaign.
Exxon Mobil, the second-worst air polluter, donated a total of $3,025 to Obama for America under four different company names (Exxon Mobil, Exxon Mobil Corporation, Exxonmobile, Exxonmobile Chemical). General Electric and the General Electric Company gave $2,575; Conoco Phillips gave $1,000 and Dow Chemical, BASF, Alco and Eastman Kodak all gave $1,000 or under.
The Business Roundtable, one of the most vocal opponents of the smog regulations bill, also represents four of Obama’s top ten donors. The Goldman Sachs Group, Time Warner, Microsoft, General Electric and his biggest donor, the Comcast Corporation (which donated $79,955 for the 2012 election cycle), are all members of the Business Roundtable.
In fact, the language used by Obama when he announced his opposition to the bill echoes that of the Roundtable’s against it: they urged “swift action by both the Administration and Congress to relieve U.S. companies of burdensome regulations that threaten economic recovery and throttle job creation.”
In a short written statement announcing that he’d decided against making the smog rule stronger, Obama said “it would put too big a burden on business in a tough economic time.”
Johanna Schneider, executive director of external relations for the Bussiness Roundtable, applauded the administration’s hands-on approach to negotiation with business leaders.
“We saw that as a positive … [Daley] weighing in on this issue within the administration,” Johanna Schneider, executive director of external relations for the Business Roundtable, told The Hill. “I think it’s emblematic of his role in the administration as part of the outreach to the business community.”
But environmental groups and health advocates were not so pleased with Obama’s announcement. Gene Karpinski, head of the League of Conservation Voters, called the decision “a huge win for corporate polluters and a huge loss for public health.”
Ground-level smog is blamed for a variety of health problems, according to the EPA, including “chest pain, coughing, throat irritation and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Ground-level ozone also can reduce lung function and inflame the linings of the lungs. Repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue.”
The strengthened smog standards were expected to save up to 4,300 lives and avoid as many as 2,200 heart attacks, according to the National Resources Defense Council. In addition, the ruling would have cleared the air for the 24 million Americans suffering from asthma.
Environmental groups have also donated money to Democrats and, in particular, Obama’s reelection campaign, but their donations pale in comparison to those given by industry giants.
The Sierra Club, for example, donated $828,748 in the 2012 election cycle, according to Open Secrets, while the anti-regulation U.S. Chamber of Commerce donated $32,851,997 in the same period.
The case of Chicago
In Chicago, the strategy of giving political contributions and citing prohibitive pollution control costs has a long history, and a deadly legacy.
The only major metropolitan area that is home to two unregulated coal plants within city limits, Chicago’s Fisk and Crawford coal plants are located in the low-income, adjacent neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village.
Midwest Generation, the parent company of the coal plants, has refused to place even the minimum environmental cleaning mechanisms on its coal plants. Environmental groups say pollution from power plants leads to early death for 13,000 people a year — 42 of those deaths will be Chicagoans living within breathing distance of the particulate matter released by Fisk and Crawford.
The asthma rates in the area are also significantly higher than the national average, and because many of the immigrant families in the neighborhood are uninsured, an asthma truck regularly visits public schools in the area.
The neighborhoods are awash in Midwest Generation funding; in Pilsen, the local Alderman Danny Solis received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Midwest Generation while refusing to sign onto the Clean Air Ordinance that would regulate the plants. The company also funds low-income student housing, Mexican food festivals and business alliances.
But a new campaign by the Sierra Club hopes to make the human cost of the coal plants as apparent as the stacks themselves. Peter Wasserman, age 6, is the new face of an ad to be plastered around the city, which says: “Chicago’s coal-burning power plants have a new filter. His name is Peter.”
Kim Wasserman, Peter’s mom, has one other child that suffers from asthma, and is an environmental activist with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.
“I want to fight for my kid to be able to breathe, and Midwest Generation is making it more difficult for my kids to be able to breathe,” Wasserman told The American Independent. “We need to make sure that we are not paying a price for a company that’s making money.”
After years of resistance and organizing by community groups, both the Pilsen and Little Village aldermen signed on to the Clean Air Ordinance, which would force the coal plants to adhere to the minimum amount of environmental regulation, or close down. The measure is currently waiting for approval of Chicago’s city council.