POLITICS:

EPA supporters work to snag women with focus on family health

Correction appended.

Environmental groups battling to protect U.S. EPA's power over climate rules today launched a strategy with a new ally: women.

The Sierra Club and League of Women Voters plan to hold a series of phone briefings targeting 500,000 women in seven states, talking to them about what the green groups see as the risks to health if EPA loses its authority over air rules. Dubbed the "Talking About Toxics Program," it is an effort to reframe the debate.

The organizations, which already had shifted to focusing on health versus climate, will be talking about "health and families," according to a strategy document obtained by Greenwire.

"The environmental and health communities need to do more to build on our success at framing the fight to limit dangerous industrial pollution around public health," the document says. "If Congress refuses to believe the research, we should put our strongest voices forward to tell the story about the vast harm toxic air pollutants, including particulate matter, ozone, mercury, formaldehyde, arsenic, lead and carbon can do to families.

"We need to reach out to more women and mobilize those women to weigh in on both the administrative and legislative fights," it adds.

The first "tele-town hall" is scheduled for this evening in Ohio. Others tentatively are planned for Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Missouri, Colorado and Massachusetts. Those are considered states with key lawmakers in the brawls over EPA's power.

The calls come as Congress continues to target the agency and as supporters and opponents submit comments on EPA's proposed toxic air pollution rule (Greenwire, April 13).

The agency's funding was whacked 16 percent as part of the budget deal for the rest of fiscal 2011, and many in the GOP have pledged not to let up. Senate Republicans have vowed the return of amendments that sought to limit EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases. Those measures failed to win passage in votes last week (E&ENews PM, April 12).

An amendment from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), which would have stripped EPA of its climate oversight, drew 50 votes, while other senators backed measures that would temporarily suspend EPA's powers.

"Over 60 members of the Senate have said the EPA has gone too far," Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said earlier this week. "And we're going let those people make sure their voices are heard."

EPA supporters devised the new strategy late last month during debates over EPA's funding and power.

"The other side is engaged in a war on the science and an all-out assault on EPA and the Clean Air Act," said David Di Martino, CEO of Blue Line Strategic Communications Inc., a consulting firm for supporters of EPA action on greenhouse gases. "To counter this, the calls will connect for a very powerful voting block the EPA/Clean Air fight to the public health and well-being of their families."

The green groups say surveys show women support EPA action on climate gases.

A February poll by Geoff Garin for the League of Conservation Voters found that "women support new EPA standards limiting carbon emissions 71 to 20," according to the strategy document. Democratic women support the EPA action 82-9 percent and Republican women support it 56-35, the document said. It did not provide a margin of error.

The calls will focus heavily on health. In addition to asking medical experts to participate, organizers plan to "anchor the calls in personal stories about local women living with air pollution, asthma and respiratory illness," the document said, and "incorporate local asthma respiratory costs and deaths and name the sources of local air toxics that affect health."

Some argue the link between health and EPA rules is misplaced.

"There's a public perception that carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions [are] what is spewing out of smokestacks at factories," said Nick Loris, policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "The reality is carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring component of the air and is also the ubiquitous and unavoidable result of fossil fuel production and other naturally occurring events.

"That leads to the misconception that the EPA is regulating emissions that are directly linked to human health and safety," Loris added, saying there is "very real scientific dissension" as to whether carbon dioxide is a threat to health or having an impact on climate change.

But environmental groups say they have statistics to support their health claims, including EPA data stating that the mercury and air toxics standards in 2016 will save as many as 17,000 lives and prevent 45,000 cases of bronchitis, 11,000 nonfatal heart attacks, 120,000 acute asthma attacks and 12,200 hospital visits. Others have challenged those numbers as flawed.

Despite the debate over the accuracy, the approach on the tele-town halls might succeed, Loris said.

"Because there is misinformation or a lack of understanding about what carbon dioxide does, I think that works to their benefit," Loris said.

The tele-town halls aim to frame the debate around families and health; engage women in the fight and highlight their support for clean air standards; protect EPA and Clean Air Act authority; and counter the "media narrative in DC that follows the denier playbook of undermining the EPA and Clean Air Act," according to the strategy document.

The calls will contact women in each of the states using voter files, Di Martino said. Each telephone town hall will call about 100,000 households and people answering can decide whether to participate. People on the first call will not be asked to lobby their lawmakers, Di Martino said, adding "this first call is educational -- about the need for updated clean air standards. Other calls may follow a similar or different format."

Swinging at Ohio

Ohio, where tonight's call will take place, illustrates some of the clash over EPA's authority. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Republican House members and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) have backed limits to EPA's authority. Portman voted for McConnell's amendment.

The state's Democratic senator, Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), opposed McConnell's measure but supported a failed amendment from Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) that would have delayed EPA's greenhouse gas regulations for two years. Brown, who is up for re-election in 2012, said he felt no pressure to support a permanent stay on EPA rules.

"I believe that climate change is real, I believe the science is sound, I believe it's a moral issue," Brown said last week. "I want to move forward with it as much as we can, but I want the administration to answer the questions of how to keep these jobs from going overseas."

Ohio is a swing state that will be important in 2012 and has seen a shift from Democrats to Republicans, said Paul Beck, political science professor at Ohio State University.

"The other thing about Ohio that may be as important is that it's a state that makes a heavy use of coal in producing its electricity and for other purposes," Beck said. "The Clean Air Act very much ties in to or attempts to regulate and restrict emissions that come from coal fired plants. It's a hot issue in Ohio because of its use of coal."

The political mood in the state has generally been opposed to climate regulations, he said, with concerns about higher costs for consumers and manufacturers.

But in some parts of Ohio, Beck said, "the rates of disease and illness from bad air are certainly higher than they are nationwide as an average. So it is an issue.

"If I were running this campaign, I would focus on Ohio," Beck said. "There's a potential here to change the mood."

Beck said he has seen data showing women are more supportive of clean air regulations.

"Women are much more sensitive to this issue than men appear to be, so it's probably smart in the initial part of this campaign to target women," Beck said.

Each hourlong tele-town hall will be structured in a series of rolling 10-minute segments on various pollutants. Each one will discuss "how the new Clean Air standards protect everyone from grandparents to kids." Some of the tele-town halls will focus on the new mercury and air toxic rule while others will home in on attempts to block or limit EPA's authorities under the Clean Air Act.

The groups plan to "explain to [call] participants how ... standards proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency lower dangerous emissions and address health concerns and what is at stake if the big polluter lobby is successful in blocking updated standards," the strategy document said.

Correction: The League of Women Voters helped organize the phone briefings. A previous version of this story misidentified the group.