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Senate Should Disregard Spurious Public Health Charges against EPA Nominee Pruitt

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee votes Wednesday on President Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. Judging from his January 18th confirmation hearing, opponents will again try to demonize Pruitt as a shill who enabled “polluters” to victimize asthmatic children.

Pruitt supporters should scoff at such demagoguery. Pruitt is in no way responsible for childhood asthma in the Sooner State.

To begin with, Oklahoma is one of the few states in the Union to attain all federal air quality standards. By law, when a state attains and maintains such standards, it reduces air pollution to levels that, in EPA’s judgment, are “requisite to protect public health” with an “adequate margin of safety.”

Besides, even if Pruitt wanted to sue “polluters” on behalf of asthmatic kids, he did not have the authority to do so. As he noted in an exchange with Sen. Mike Rounds (R-ND):

As I tried to indicate to Senator Carper, in respect to enforcement actions in the State of Oklahoma, that is vested specifically in the Department of Environmental Quality. They are the ones that bring enforcement actions against companies who do not comply with air permits, et cetera. We provide general counsel to them in that process, but it is not our responsibility. But more, it is not our jurisdiction. And that is important to me, because it goes back to rule of law, it goes back to process. . . .I try to respect my role as attorney general, stay in my lane, if you will, and provide the counsel and perform the job that we are supposed to perform to that agency, but then allow that agency to enforce as required by law.

It’s also far from clear that further reductions in air pollution would do much for asthmatic kids. If outdoor air pollution were a major cause of asthma in the United States, we would expect asthma rates to have declined as air quality improved. Instead, the opposite has occurred. Since 1980, emissions of the six principal air pollutants decreased by 62 percent, and ozone concentrations decreased by 33 percent, yet asthma rates nearly tripled from 3.1 percent to 8.4 percent.   

It may seem self-evident to some senators that pollution from “dirty energy” causes and triggers asthma, hence the nation should rapidly wean itself from fossil fuels. But consider these inconvenient facts.

Texas is the nation’s top producer of oil, gas, and lignite coal, has the largest number of oil refineries, and obtains about one-third of its electricity from coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. So does Texas have the nation’s highest asthma rate?

Quite the contrary. As analyst Katie Brown points out today on Energy in Depth, Texas has the lowest asthma rate of any state in the union, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) latest asthma data. She also notes that all four top oil producing states—Texas, California, Alaska, and North Dakota—have lower asthma rates than New York and Vermont, the two states that banned hydraulic fracturing.