The first signs of a shift came even before Election Day 2010, arriving as letters and dramatic ads. But as the 112th Congress gets to work, environmental groups are stepping up their transition toward a new health-centric message that focuses on any lawmaker backing limits on U.S. EPA, not just those in tough races.
"Failure to allow EPA to safeguard our air supply exposes thousands of people with chronic illnesses, including our children, to increased health episodes," Health Care Without Harm climate coordinator Brenda Afzal told reporters late last week.
That invocation by green advocates of pollution's harsh impact on human health marks a drawing of battle lines for a war almost certain to spill into the 2012 election. Even so, defenders of environmental regulations are casting their net surprisingly wide in criticizing opponents of EPA emissions rules -- Afzal and the Natural Resources Defense Council took aim at all 123 members of Congress who have co-sponsored bills blocking the agency, charging them with trying "to turn back the clock on air quality."
The group of 123 includes members likely to face tough re-election races, such as freshman Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), as well as safely ensconced veterans from Texas and even three moderate to conservative Democrats, Reps. Mike Ross of Arkansas, Dan Boren of Oklahoma and Nick Rahall of West Virginia, who could be Republican targets next year. In the past, environmental groups have rarely gone after Democrats not already battling a challenge from the left, as Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) was last year when the League of Conservation Voters' political arm tagged her "Big Oil Blanche."
Advocacy groups' health-minded defense of EPA curbs on greenhouse gases, ozone and smog is one that "resonates everywhere," particularly in "redder states" that rely on coal for electricity, Environment Massachusetts director Ben Wright said in an interview. Wright's group joined NRDC last month in running early radio ads blasting Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who has yet to draw a strong Democratic challenger, for seeking to "cripple the EPA when it comes to protecting us from carbon dioxide."
Though Bay State media reported yesterday that he had $7 million in his re-election coffers as of Dec. 31, Brown is a prime example of the small group of swing- and blue-state Republicans who might feel the tangible effects of pressure from environmental groups.
"I think he knows he's going to have to moderate some set of positions" in advance of his 2012 run, Wright said. "I firmly believe the environment is one that should be on that list, and our goal is to get it there."
It remains far from clear, however, that the charged connection between bills revoking EPA authority and rates of childhood asthma can help the environmentalists' case gain traction with even the most imperiled Republicans. Freshman Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.) is already on the Democrats' list of top targets for 2012, but her office responded to the NRDC pushback with the economic case against EPA that the GOP used to great effect in the midterm elections.
"As a physician, Rep. Hayworth is always focused on the health and well-being of her constituents and all Americans," spokesman Nathaniel Sillin said via e-mail. "The EPA regulations Rep. Hayworth opposes will drive up spending, have an impact on jobs, and raise energy costs on families and small businesses already finding it hard to make ends meet."
Another Republican blasted from both sides of the spectrum for his record on emissions, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, said he is "not terribly concerned" about taking heat from green groups for his criticism of EPA action on carbon emissions.
"The consensus behind the climate change bill collapsed and then further deteriorated with the personal and political collapse of Vice President [Al] Gore," Kirk said in a brief interview last week.
Democrats cottoning on
No matter the political reception the new health-focused message receives, green groups are sticking by an argument they believe will hit home with voters. "People feel EPA should be left alone to do its job, which is to protect public health," NRDC senior climate advocate Theo Spencer said in an interview.
Both EPA critics in competitive races and those in safer congressional seats, Spencer added, will have "to explain why they are trying to roll back protections of public health."
Democrats already are weaving in the new environmentalist message to their recent show of support for EPA regulations. When Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming and seven other Republicans yesterday proposed exempting greenhouse gases from major environmental laws, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) began by blasting the plan for "put[ting] the public health at risk," while Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) warned of higher childhood asthma rates.
The agency itself has no shortage of data to bolster the efforts by its private-sector and congressional allies. For example, EPA estimated that its recent proposal to cut mercury and other emissions from cement plants, which Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) has proposed legislation to block, would produce between seven and 19 times more public health benefits than its economic costs.
Yet the green groups' own data may be the sharpest arrow in their quiver. Environmental advocates homed in on public health, Wright said, following focus groups that evaluated "pocketbook" messages with the potential to appeal to the broadest swath of voters. He described that work as conducted by some of the same groups that belonged to the Clean Energy Works coalition, which recently stepped back from its work in support of the climate bill but suggested it would return to defend EPA authority (Greenwire, Sept. 13, 2010).
In polling and focus groups conducted by green advocates, respondents viewed EPA emissions rules favorably on both the health and job-creation fronts, according to a source familiar with the research. That the latter message hit home with voters suggests that environmental groups could soon start to stress the economic benefits of EPA regulations -- in other words, linking carbon controls with the new jobs generated to enforce them.