Senator's Policies Leave People and the Planet in Bad Health (Op-Ed)

Elliott Negin is the director of news and commentary at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). This article is adapted from one that appeared on the Huffington Post on Aug. 22, 2012. Negin contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Virtually all U.S. medical-school students swear fealty to the Hippocratic Oath, which has been updated numerous times since it was written some 2,400 years ago. Like the original, the modern-day version lays out the core principles of medical practice, including treating patients to the best of one's ability and protecting privacy.

Dr. John Barrasso, the junior senator from Wyoming and an orthopedic surgeon, should revisit that oath. Since taking office six years ago, Barrasso seems to have forgotten two of its key provisions — the primacy of preventing disease and the need to respect scientific advances — by introducing bills that would block the U.S. government from curbing carbon emissions, as well as voting to eliminate toxic air-pollution protections.

His latest effort came in response to President Barack Obama's June 25 announcement that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will issue new standards to cut carbon emissions from existing electric-power plants. Barrasso and four other Republican senators introduced a bill that would block the agency from establishing such standards without congressional authorization — and vowed to attach the bill as an amendment to other legislation.

Never mind that Congress has failed to seriously address climate change — and there are no prospects that it will anytime soon.

Barrasso's new bill is essentially a reprise of legislation he introduced in January 2011 that would have prevented the EPA from limiting carbon pollution and which overturned the agency's endangerment finding that carbon emissions are harmful to public health and the environment.

"My bill requires the Obama administration to have explicit congressional approval before moving forward with excessive regulations that will kill jobs, close coal plants, and make energy costs skyrocket," Barrasso said in a July 18 press release. According to Barrasso, his policy prescription — what he calls the National Energy Tax Repeal Act — would restore congressional authority, prevent higher energy costs, protect jobs and protect public health.

I'll examine all of these dubious claims below, but the most preposterous is the idea that his proposed legislation would protect public health. How could someone with such impressive credentials make this assertion?

Barrasso got his undergraduate and medical degrees at Georgetown, did his residency at Yale, was the president of the Wyoming Medical Society and was named "Wyoming Physician of the Year" in 1993. More recently, a September 2010 Washingtonian magazine survey of Capitol Hill staffers named him one of the two "brainiest" senators.

With all that knowledge and experience, why is Barrasso practicing bad medicine?

Perhaps it's because he represents the country's top coal-producing state. Or that coal generates 86 percent of Wyoming's electricity. Or that seven of his top 12 campaign contributors — including Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Koch Industries — are major carbon polluters.

Whatever the reason, Barrasso apparently ditched his professional pledge when he moved to Washington.

Climate science not compelling?

Unlike some of his Senate colleagues, Barrasso doesn't explicitly deny the reality of climate change . Instead, he refuses to answer questions about it or changes the subject to warn about the potential economic impact of limiting carbon emissions.

This anecdote from December 2011 is particularly telling. National Journal reporter Coral Davenport confronted Barrasso for her story, "Heads in the Sand," and came up empty:

On his way to the weekly Senate GOP luncheon in the Capitol building, Barrasso paused in an empty hallway to chat. When a reporter said, "Senator, can I ask you a question about climate change?" he fell silent and his eyes narrowed. "I'm busy," he snapped, before turning sharply and striding away.

Two days later, the reporter tried again. Approached in the Capitol, Barrasso smiled and appeared poised to answer questions, inviting the reporter into an elevator with him. As the door slid shut, the reporter asked, "Do you believe that climate change is causing the Earth to warm?" A long silence ensued. The senator eventually let out a slow laugh and said, "This isn't the time to have that conversation." As soon as the elevator opened, he clapped his phone to his ear and walked briskly toward the Capitol subway.

More recently, reporters turned to Barrasso for his reaction to Obama's June 25 speech, which coincidentally took place at the senator's alma mater. During the speech, the president argued there is an urgent need to address global warming. "I don't have much patience for anyone who denies this challenge is real," he said, mopping his brow in the summer heat. "We don't have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it's not going to protect you from the coming storm."

Another National Journal reporter — Amy Harder — asked Barrasso if he thinks climate science is as compelling as Obama contends.

"He talked about the Flat Earth Society," Barrasso replied. "We have a very flat economy. You used the word 'compelling,' and I don't think so. I think you have to focus on the American economy. The costs of regulations are real. And the benefits are unknown."

Putting aside the fact that the economy is slowly recovering and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) won't be issuing draft standards for currently operating power plants until next summer, what about the cost of continuing to burn fossil fuels? On that question, Barrasso is mum.

Congress authorized the EPA to regulate carbon

Barrasso's first reason for thwarting the EPA can be dismissed out of hand. The senator maintains that Obama's presidential memorandum instructing the agency to establish carbon-pollution standards for existing power plants circumvents congressional authority. In fact, Congress authorized the EPA to regulate air pollutants when it passed the Clean Air Act decades ago.

If there were any ambiguity, it was cleared up in 2007 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled carbon emissions are indeed air pollutants and subject to regulation if a thorough scientific investigation determined they endanger public health and welfare. Two years later, the EPA released an endangerment finding that concluded carbon emissions pose significant risks to public health. Citing extensive scientific research, the agency found that such pollutants trigger hotter and longer-lasting heat waves that jeopardize the health of the poor, sick and elderly; more ground-level ozone pollution — a primary component of smog — which is linked to asthma and other respiratory illnesses; and more extreme weather events, such as floods and torrential rains, that can lead to deaths, disease and stress-related illnesses.

In other words, the good doctor is ignoring the fact that the EPA is required by law to curb carbon emissions because of the very fact they pose a health threat.

Renewables' negligible impact on electric rates

Trying to exploit public disdain for taxes, Barrasso charges that the administration's plan to rein in power-plant carbon emissions — which will hit coal the hardest — constitutes a "national energy tax" that will drive up electricity costs.

Real world evidence suggests otherwise.

Even without new controls on carbon emissions, coal has been on the decline for a number of reasons, including cheap natural gas, an expanding renewables sector, years of dampened demand due to the Great Recession and a growing number of shuttered, outmoded coal plants.

U.S. electricity generated from coal has dropped steadily from nearly 53 percent in 1997 to 42 percent in 2011 to just 37 percent last year. Meanwhile, natural gas — which emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal — went from generating about 25 percent of U.S. electricity in 2011 to 30 percent in 2012. The switch from coal to natural gas, which the U.S. Energy Information Administration expects to continue, has not jacked up electric rates.

Natural gas comes with its own set of disadvantages, however, which includes the impacts from fracking and methane leakage. Better, carbon-free alternatives to coal would be wind, solar and other renewable energy sources, and there's no indication they would dramatically increase electric rates, either. So far, standards in 29 states and the District of Columbia requiring utilities to increase their use of renewables by a certain percentage by a specific year have had a negligible impact on cost, according to a May 2013 analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS):

Nearly all state RES [renewable electricity standard] policies include cost-containment measures to protect consumers from higher than expected costs. Nevertheless, meeting RES requirements is proving to be an affordable way for utilities to add power-generating capacity while reducing dependence on fossil fuels. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, having recently evaluated 2009 and 2010 RES compliance-cost data that were available for 14 states, estimated that all but one state experienced cost impacts of about 1.6 percent or less.

Over the long haul, RES rate impacts could be even lower than estimated, UCS found, because most renewable-energy technology costs are incurred up-front. After the equipment is manufactured and installed, the "fuel" — the sun's rays or the wind — is free, which is certainly not the case with a coal, natural gas or nuclear plant. That fact helps stabilize electricity prices and provide long-term savings.

Finally, a June 2013 study by Synapse Energy Economics for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) concluded that moving in the direction of cutting power-plant carbon emissions 26 percent from their peak levels in 2005 by 2020 would modestly increase average monthly electric bills by 69 cents in 2016. By 2020, however, average residential electricity bills would be about 90 cents lower per month, in 2012 dollars.

Coal's war on us

While Barrasso tries to whip up fears of a new energy tax, he ignores the fact that Americans essentially have been paying a coal tax amounting to billions of dollars a year in health and environmental costs. This charge may not show up as a line item on monthly electric bills, but we're paying it just the same.

How so?

Coal-fired power plants pose a double-barreled threat: They're the biggest source of U.S. carbon emissions — accounting for roughly 40 percent — and the biggest industrial source of "traditional" toxic pollutants, including mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. And, heat-trapping carbon gases and toxic emissions — either indirectly or directly — can sicken people and send them to an early grave.

The EPA isn't the only federal or international science-based institution that has concluded that global warming poses a significant threat to human health. In fact, every major scientific academy around the world has warned that climate change is a serious problem. And earlier this year, the U.S. National Climate Assessment — a consortium of 13 departments and agencies coordinated by the Commerce Department — released a 1,146-page draft report on the consequences of climate change nationwide. The draft includes a 52-page chapter detailing health impacts. The chapter's top two messages:

Climate change threatens human health and well-being in many ways, including impacts from increased extreme-weather events; wildfire; decreased air quality; diseases transmitted by insects, food and water; and threats to mental health. Some of these health impacts are already underway in the U.S.

Climate change will, absent other changes, amplify some of the existing health threats the nation now faces. Certain people and communities are especially vulnerable, including children, the elderly, the sick, the poor and some communities of color.

What does the climate change "tax burden" look like for Barrasso's 576,412 constituents? Residents in Wyoming — the least populated state in the nation — will "face greater health risks from water shortages, flooding, dangerous heat waves, and declining air quality," according to NRDC. The environmental group noted that "average temperatures are already increasing [in Wyoming], along with the frequency of extreme heat, droughts, wildfires and unhealthy air days" and that average temperatures in the state could rise another 6.1 degrees Fahrenheit (3.4 degrees Celsius) by the end of the century. Extreme weather, meanwhile, has become the norm. In 2011, Wyoming broke 19 heat records, 30 rainfall records, and five snowfall records.

But Barrasso says he doesn't find climate science compelling. Then what about the toxins that spew from coal plant smokestacks?

Coal plants emit more than 80 toxic pollutants, according to the American Lung Association (ALA). That nasty brew includes hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride and other acid gases; benzene, toluene, formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds; dioxins and furans; mercury; lead, arsenic and other non-mercury metals; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; and radium, uranium and other radioactive materials. The hidden tax they levy includes respiratory diseases, neurological damage, heart attacks and strokes, various cancers, birth defects and premature death.

Besides that, coal plants emit particulate matter, or soot, which also causes and exacerbates respiratory problems, triggers heart attacks and strokes, and increases the risk of an early death. ALA estimates that particulate pollution from coal plants kills some 13,000 Americans each year.

Regardless, Barrasso isn't too concerned about toxic pollutants and particulates, either.

In June 2012, for example, he voted for a Congressional Review Act resolution that would have eliminated the EPA's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for coal- and oil-fired power plants. The EPA estimates that the standards — which limit emissions of mercury, lead, arsenic, acid gases, dioxins and other toxic pollutants — will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks every year, as well as enable Americans to avoid as many as 540,000 missed work "sick" days.

Fortunately, that resolution — sponsored by Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe — was defeated by a 53 to 46 vote.

Barrasso also apparently doesn't appreciate coal's overall cost to society. Two years ago, a dozen researchers from the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, and nine other institutions and organizations published a paper in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences that calculated coal's annual "life cycle" cost — including its impact on miners, public health and the environment — at $175 billion to $523 billion, with a best estimate of $345 billion a year.

That estimate, however, doesn't come close to capturing the full cost, the researchers readily acknowledged, because it left out a number of significant factors, including the impact of toxic chemicals and heavy metals on plants, animals and wildlife habitat; hazards posed by sludge, slurry and fly-ash lagoons; and the prolonged impact of acid rain. The fact that the researchers only looked at the impact of mining in Appalachia also limited the scope of their analysis.

"The true ecological and health costs of coal are thus far greater than the numbers suggest," the researchers concluded. "Accounting for many external costs over the life cycle for coal-derived electricity conservatively doubles to triples to price of coal per [kilowatt hour] of electricity generated."

Renewable jobs outpacing coal jobs nationwide

Barrasso maintains that his bill, by stopping the EPA from regulating power plant carbon pollution, would protect jobs. "Over the next few months," the senator vowed in his July 18 press release, "I am going to repeatedly push for a vote on this bill because we must send a strong signal against this job crushing plan."

Job crushing?

This is how Barrasso explains it: Curbing carbon will result in higher energy costs, which, in turn, will "lead to joblessness for thousands of Americans in states like Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia and Montana in an economy that is already struggling."

First, as I have already pointed out, Barrasso overstates the impact carbon emission controls will have on electric rates. Second, even if he is correct about job losses, he is talking about thousands in a country with an employed workforce of more than 150 million. And third, any changes in the electricity-generation mix will result in job losses in some sectors and gains in others. When the automobile replaced the horse, there were a lot more opportunities for auto mechanics and a lot fewer for buggy whip makers.

It's also interesting that Barrasso doesn't cite his own state. Wyoming produces 40 percent of America's coal, and its state government relies heavily on revenues from an 11 percent tax it levies on coal production. Even so, the industry doesn't actually provide jobs for that many people there. In 2011 — the most recently available data — Wyoming coal production employed only 7,039 workers — ameasly 3.4 percent of the 208,385 state residents working in private, non-farm jobs.

Nationwide, renewable-technology and energy-efficiency companies now employ more people than the coal industry. In 2012, there were nearly 45 percent more Americans working in solar and wind than in coal. A Solar Foundation survey identified 119,016 workers "who spend at least 50 percent of their time supporting solar-related activities." American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) counted 80,000 people working in the wind industry. The total for the two renewable technologies: 199,016. Meanwhile, according to the Mine Health and Safety Administration, there were 137,650 people working in coal.

Given the explosive growth of renewables over the last few years, the workforce in this nascent sector is bound to grow, especially if the EPA limits carbon emissions. The aforementioned Synapse study, which came out in June, projects that the gains in new jobs due to carbon controls would outweigh inevitable job losses in the coal industry — which state and federal authorities will have to address with retraining programs. Synapse estimated a net gain of 76,000 jobs nationally in 2016 and 210,000 in 2020 if power plant carbon emissions were cut 26 percent by then from their peak levels in 2005.

Renewables also show promise in Barrasso's home state. Wind currently provides nearly 9 percent of Wyoming's electricity, according to AWEA, lighting up the equivalent of more than 420,000 homes. But the strong winds that blow across Wyoming have the potential to provide 113 times its electricity demand, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and wind developers are hatching plans to turn the state into a wind powerhouse. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that billionaire Philip Anschutz wants to build the country's largest wind farm on his 500-square-mile cattle ranch near Rawlins, and a group of investors, ranchers and utilities are planning a similarly sized wind farm near Chugwater, about 150 miles east of Anschutz's spread. Both projects, however, will need transmission lines to ship electrons westward to California.

Barrasso's flawed diagnosis of how to protect public health

Lastly, Barrasso claims his bill would protect public health by protecting jobs.

"Congressional testimony and the latest studies," he states in his July 18 press release, "show that joblessness increases the likelihood of hospital visits, illnesses and premature deaths."

In principle, Barrasso is correct. Studies have shown that losing a job and experiencing long-time unemployment can be hazardous to your health. That said, Barrasso is not only disregarding the health risks from coal-fired power plant emissions, he also is overlooking the threat coal mining poses to miners and surrounding communities.

Although coal mining fatalities and injuries have declined significantly over the last few decades, it's still a dirty, dangerous job. The biggest health and safety dangers, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, include dust particles from blasting and drilling, which can accumulate in the lungs; radon, which over time can cause lung cancer; welding fumes, which can cause respiratory problems; mercury poisoning; noise, which can lead to hearing loss; and lifting heavy loads, which can cause back injuries.

But the hazards go beyond the mine operation itself. A July 2012 report by the Center for Public Integrity looked at the impact mountaintop coal mining has on public health in Appalachia:

West Virginia ranks last among the states in physical health and overall well-being, the 2011 Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index found. Kentucky's 5th Congressional District, where much mountaintop-removal mining takes place, ranks at the bottom of America's 436 districts in terms of physical health. West Virginia's 3rd District comes in at No. 435.

Numerous peer-reviewed studies, including more than a dozen by Michael Hendryx of West Virginia University and various co-authors from 2007 to 2011, have pointed to severe health problems in central Appalachia. People living near mountaintop-mining sites had cancer rates 50 percent higher than residents of non-mining areas, the studies said. Rates of birth defects were 42 percent higher. Mortality rates were also significantly elevated, even after researchers adjusted for factors such as smoking, alcohol use and access to health care.

Is it worth it? Not according to a 2009 study coauthored by Hendryx, the associate director of West Virginia University's Institute for Health Policy Research, and Melissa Ahern, a health economist at Washington State University. Their study, published in the journal Public Health Reports, found that while coal mining is worth about $8 billion to Appalachia's economy, the estimated cost of shortened life spans associated with coal operations in the region ranged from $18 billion to $84 billion. Their conclusion: "The human cost of the Appalachian coal mining economy outweighs its economic benefits."

Dr. Barrasso needs to renew his vow

So what happened to Dr. John Barrasso, the orthopedic surgeon who years ago pledged to respect "hard-won scientific gains" and "prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure"?

Not only is he flouting those provisions of the Hippocratic Oath, he also is violating another well-known medical dictum, "First, do no harm." The phrase is supposed to remind physicians that they must consider the possible harm any medical intervention might do. In Barrasso's case, he needs to be reminded that his policy prescriptions would do plenty of it.

Instead of standing up for common-sense measures to safeguard public health, Barrasso has aligned himself with one of the most scientifically challenged members of the Senate, James Inhofe, who famously called global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" and last year sponsored the resolution that would have abolished power-plant toxic-pollution standards. Unlike Inhofe, Barrasso avoids making harsh comments about climate science, but speaking of the Oklahoma senator back in July 2009, Barrasso told Greenwire, "Legislatively we're on the same page."

Barrasso should find some other role models.

I suggest the four former EPA administrators who published an op-ed column in the New York Times earlier this month titled "A Republican Case for Climate Action." William Ruckelshaus, Lee Thomas, William Reilly and Christine Todd Whitman — all Republicans who served Republican presidents — called on members of Congress to support President Obama's proposals to reduce carbon emissions and take action of their own.

"The costs of inaction are undeniable," they warned. "The lines of scientific evidence grow only stronger and more numerous. And the window of time remaining to act is growing smaller: delay could mean that warming becomes 'locked in.'"

Heed their call, Dr. Barrasso. It's time you renewed your vow to uphold the storied principles of the medical profession.

This article was adapted from "Dr. Barrasso Goes to Washington ... to Kill Federal Health Protections?," which appeared on the Huffington Post. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.