Ads use national parks as props to attack EPA ozone plan

By Amanda Peterka | 08/05/2015 01:03 PM EDT

Most industry campaigns opposing U.S. EPA’s proposal to tighten the national ground-level ozone limit have argued that a lower standard is not necessary and would cause widespread economic ruin.

Most industry campaigns opposing U.S. EPA’s proposal to tighten the national ground-level ozone limit have argued that a lower standard is not necessary and would cause widespread economic ruin.

But an ad launched last week by the National Association of Manufacturers puts a different spin on the Obama administration proposal. Airing in the Washington, D.C., television market, the ad opens with a shot of Yosemite National Park, then takes the viewer on a tour of other iconic Western parks.

An announcer touts the parks’ "pristine" air quality as soothing background music plays.


Then music screeches to a halt and the announcer says the Obama administration’s proposed ozone standard would put the parks in violation of the Clean Air Act.

Experts who study political advertising said NAM’s strategy of using national parks has the potential to resonate more than its ads that focus solely on big economic costs, especially among citizens outside the Beltway who are not intimately familiar with the details of the ozone proposal.

Evan Tracey, an adjunct professor in political communications at George Washington University, said the parks ad’s strategy is to spin EPA’s complex ozone proposal into an "absurd" proposition.

"It’s really about being able to create an ad or message in some way that shows the ozone standard in somewhat of an absurd way," Tracey said in an interview. "You’re trying to go at people’s trust and plant some doubt in them."

EPA in November proposed to lower the national air standard for ozone to between 65 and 70 parts per billion from 75 ppb set during the George W. Bush administration. The agency says the tougher standard would shield the public health from ozone, a component of smog.

Industry groups opposed to a tighter standard have ramped up their attacks on it in the past week. NAM yesterday launched another television ad in the D.C. market that opens with a shot of the White House and warns that EPA’s proposal would stifle economic growth and kill jobs.

NAM released the parks ad — called "What Does the Elk Say" — last week in the D.C. market, just as many people were planning their summer escapes to those parks. NAM plans to expand it to other markets in the next month (E&E Daily, July 28).

"The fact that it is using such a nonobvious argument could be in its favor," said Edward Maibach, a communications professor at George Mason University.

The ozone issue is complicated. Ground-level ozone — a pollutant — is chemically identical to compounds that protect humans from the sun’s harmful rays in the upper atmosphere.

Ground-level ozone is not directly emitted but forms when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds react in sunlight.

The regulatory regime for ozone pollution is also complicated. It involves more than one standard and allocates some duties to EPA and others to state and local regulators.

And there is yet another complication: In the West, there’s "background ozone," which falls from the upper atmosphere, which is transported from overseas or is caused by lightning and wildfires.

"The problem is when you start to break it down to rank-and-file Americans, ozone is not going to register on a poll," Tracey said. "To the extent that you can connect the regulations back to something that people care about, then you get them more interested."

Advertising that focuses mainly on large-scale economic impacts of the ozone standard may not register with voters if they cannot connect those impacts to their everyday lives, Tracey said. Something like ozone is more abstract than a gasoline tax, for example, which affects consumers directly every time they fill up at the pump.

The national parks ad is "trying to use something that people wouldn’t necessarily connect and use that essentially as a metaphor to get people to care about this issue," he said.

Maibach, who directs George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication, objected to the ad’s content.

"We love our national parks. We do want to believe that they are pristine places," he said. "Regrettably, they aren’t pristine places, often because of the coal-fired power plants in the neighborhoods."

Group slams, NAM defends ads

Last week, as NAM released the ad, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) unveiled a report that found three-quarters of national parks at times experience air that’s unhealthy, defined as "moderate" or worse air pollution under EPA’s Air Quality Index (Greenwire, July 28).

"The most prized national parks including Grand Canyon, Zion and Yosemite struggle with significant air pollution, and to suggest otherwise is fallacious and not in the best interest of America’s parks or their millions of annual visitors," association Chief Operating Officer Theresa Pierno wrote in an open letter in response to the NAM ad.

In its report, NPCA found that visibility-impairing haze also affects parks and that people, on average, lose 50 miles of view due to haze.

Stephanie Kodish, head of NPCA’s air program, said NPCA is working with its allies to get its report’s content out on public media. The conservation organization is also seeking to direct the public to EPA data and other tools that let people know the quality of their air on a daily basis.

"When you throw millions of dollars behind ads that are saying that, you have sort of a weight of attention to deliver on a message, which doesn’t make it accurate. It just makes it more in your face," Kodish said.

"My hope is that accurate information, even if it’s not backed by millions, will make its way to the light so that these absurd ads can be dismissed for what they are: ridiculous propaganda," she said.

NAM yesterday launched another television ad that opens with a shot of the White House and warns that EPA’s proposal would stifle economic growth and kill jobs.

The national parks ad is aimed not only at the public but also at policymakers, according to Ross Eisenberg, vice president of energy and resources policy at NAM.

NAM, he said, is trying to raise awareness of EPA’s ozone proposal outside the Beltway after meeting with local officials who had no knowledge of the agency’s bid to tighten the standard.

The manufacturing group’s campaign was also partly meant to coincide with the start of the congressional recess and to make sure ozone remains "on top of their issue priority list" as members go back to their home districts for the month.

"The entire target audience of that ad," Maibach said, "might be one or two members of Congress who they hope will ridicule [EPA’s proposal] using the line ‘our pristine national parks.’"