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Environmental group targets Ohio’s Portman over clean air

EPA attacks budget amendment Ohio senator introduced

  • n7portman-4

    An ad blitz is challenging Sen. Rob Portman’s image as a ‘moderate’ on climate change. The ads portray the Ohio Republican as supportive of coal-fired power plants.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • n7algae-1

    Thick algae covered parts of Lake Erie on Aug. 7 off of Maumee Bay State Park in Oregon. How to prevent another occurrence without putting a big burden on industry or consumers is the subject of much debate among legislators and organizations lobbying them.

    THE BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH
    Buy This Image

n7portman-4

An ad blitz is challenging Sen. Rob Portman’s image as a ‘moderate’ on climate change. The ads portray the Ohio Republican as supportive of coal-fired power plants.

ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

One of America’s most well-financed and courtroom-savvy environmental groups is going hard after U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) for a budget amendment he introduced that could weaken the federal government’s landmark Clean Air Act.

The New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council began a two-week advertising blitz against Mr. Portman across social media platforms, in newspapers, and Ohio television stations, aiming to challenge Mr. Portman’s image as a “moderate” on environmental issues including climate change.

The group said it is spending in the “mid-six-figure” range to go after Mr. Portman and other lawmakers who have blocked climate-change legislation or called for more research on the issue.

The ads portray Mr. Portman as being supportive of coal-fired power plants and other large sources of air pollution at the expense of children with asthma.

They are critical of the senator’s amendment to make state-by-state compliance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan optional.

The controversial federal EPA plan, rolled out in 2014, has become the cornerstone of President Obama’s effort to reduce carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Mr. Portman, who was in Ukraine last week, told The Blade via a lengthy email exchange that he has stated publicly since 2010 that climate change is a fact and that he has “voted for a number of amendments in the Senate that say climate change is real and humans contribute.”

“I have acknowledged the problem and have spent my time in Congress focusing on solutions — including developing clean and efficient energy that grows our economy and creates jobs while also lowering pollution levels and protecting the environment,” he said.

Mr. Portman said his one-page budget resolution under fire in the Natural Resources Defense Council ads simply would give states the ability to opt out of the Obama Administration’s carbon rule “if they can prove the rule will disproportionately harm low/​fixed-income vulnerable households, cost jobs, harm the economy, or risk electric reliability.”

“It would be a safety valve for states that need to use it,” Mr. Portman wrote. “I hope no state ever has to use the safety valve, but I proposed it because the [U.S.] EPA has a horrible track record of estimating the economic costs of its rules.”

Some environmental groups, such as the National Wildlife Federation, applaud Mr. Portman’s work to prevent algae blooms but also cite scientific studies that conclude western Lake Erie’s longstanding algae problem, attributed mostly to farm runoff, is being exacerbated by climate change and invasive species.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration records show major thunderstorms up 51 percent in the Midwest since the 1960s.

“Harmful algal blooms are made worse by the increasing storms and heavier rainfall hitting Ohio, and while Senator Portman is a leader on combating algal blooms, we hope he makes the clear connection between extreme weather and protecting drinking water and restoring the Great Lakes,” according to a statement by Frank Szollosi, a former Toledo councilman now running the climate change program for the wildlife federation’s office in Ann Arbor.

A battleground

Henry Henderson, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Midwest office in Chicago, said Ohio is a key battleground state not only for presidential elections but also for the national debate over climate change and air pollution in general.

Ohio is one of America’s largest energy users, being one of the largest manufacturing states. But it also is one of the most heavily dependent on coal-fired power plants and one of the largest contributors of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases associated with climate change.

“The Great Lakes are the canary in the coal mine,” said Mr. Henderson, a lawyer who served as the city of Chicago’s first environmental commissioner. “Supporting the Great Lakes means you should support efforts to address climate change. If you’re not addressing climate change, you’re not addressing the health of the Great Lakes.”

n7algae-1

Thick algae covered parts of Lake Erie on Aug. 7 off of Maumee Bay State Park in Oregon. How to prevent another occurrence without putting a big burden on industry or consumers is the subject of much debate among legislators and organizations lobbying them.

THE BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH
Enlarge | Buy This Image

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s website said the group has been called “one of the nation’s most powerful environmental groups” by the New York Times. The council has used its legal muscle to win lawsuits with national implications against polluters and against federal agencies it alleges have fallen short of enforcing environmental laws.

Noah Hall, a Wayne State University environmental law professor who formerly worked for the National Wildlife Federation, has said many environmental groups are in awe of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s financial strength and legal resources.

Jack Shaner, Ohio Environmental Council deputy director and senior director of legislative and public affairs, has made similar statements.

According to Big Green Radicals, a project of a Washington-based industry front group called the Environmental Policy Alliance, the Natural Resources Defense Council operates on more than $182 million in net assets.

Portman’s stance

David Goldston, Natural Resources Defense Council government affairs director, said Mr. Portman’s proposal to give states the option of complying with tougher carbon rules is a “particularly insidious way” to control air pollution and slow the rate of climate change.

“Air does not stop at state boundaries,” Mr. Goldston said. He said Mr. Portman’s amendment would “unravel” protections under the 45-year-old Clean Air Act, which became law the same year as the first Earth Day in 1970.

Mr. Portman comes off as a moderate but is hurting the Great Lakes with his position, Mr. Goldston said.

“The definition of a moderate is not supposed to be someone who goes in one direction, then another,” he said.

In his email, Mr. Portman cited the U.S. EPA’s 2011 Mercury and Air Toxics Standards as an example of onerous regulations with good intentions that have produced unintended consequences.

He said that rule has forced utilities to retire coal-fired power generators far quicker than expected.

“This generation loss has made us vulnerable to brownouts and blackouts — just this week, the White House was without power for a period due to [a] power surge, and Ohio lucked out last winter [2013-14] during the polar vortex,” Mr. Portman said.

FirstEnergy Corp. has blamed that rule for its decision to retire some of its coal-fired power generators, including those at its Bay Shore power plant locally in 2012.

Renewable energy

In apparent response to concerns about the Obama Administration’s carbon rule being too onerous for the poor, the Natural Resources Defense Council last week issued a report that claims the opposite.

It cited examples of renewable energy projects in Kentucky, Illinois, Colorado, and California to show that low-income Americans can experience better health, more savings, and increased employment opportunities under the Clean Power Plan because of how it creates incentives for more green energy.

The trend for more renewable energy is being embraced in many other parts of the world, while advocates fear Gov. John Kasich’s action to freeze Ohio renewable energy mandates has stymied investment in the state.

The United Nations on March 31 issued a report showing $270 billion of global investments in renewable energy in 2014, a 17 percent increase after two years of decline.

The United Nations said that’s significant because it comes even with lower crude oil and natural gas prices. China, Japan, and Europe were among the world leaders.

Mr. Kasich, a possible 2016 GOP presidential candidate, infuriated clean-energy advocates and a number of Ohio businesses that have embraced renewable energy when, in 2014, he signed into law legislation pushed by FirstEnergy for a two-year freeze on the state’s mandates for more renewable power.

A June 4, 2014, letter from nearly 50 major businesses and organizations urged him to keep the mandates intact. Signers included Rudolph Libbe, Owens Corning, Whirlpool, Nissin Brake, Johnson Controls, and Ohio Interfaith Power & Light.

The mandate, which calls for Ohio to get at least 12.5 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2025, is one of the softest of its kind and was signed into law in 2008 by Mr. Portman’s opponent in next year’s Senate race, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland.

In a meeting with The Blade’s editorial board last fall, Mr. Kasich said he signed the freeze into law because of federal subsidies that have gone to the wind and solar industries. He claimed none had gone to coal and nuclear.

But a Washington-based think tank, Taxpayers for Common Sense, cites $70 billion in subsidies for the coal industry and $85 billion for the nuclear industry, which is far more than solar or wind subsidies. Mr. Kasich’s office has refused multiple requests for comment about that. Taxpayers for Common Sense describes itself as a nonpartisan budget watchdog created in 1995.

Mr. Kasich declined to be interviewed for this story, his spokesman, Rob Nichols, said.

Proponents of tougher U.S. EPA laws said their support is not just about climate change, but also about keeping airborne mercury, cancer-causing PCBs, lead, and other harmful pollutants from settling into Great Lakes water used for drinking by 30 million Americans and 10 million Canadians.

Mr. Henderson said the Natural Resources Defense Council is calling on Mr. Portman to “be a leader in solving the problem instead of continuing to support a system that is dysfunctional.”

Mr. Portman said he will continue to oppose rules that appear excessive.

“The fact of the matter is that the federal government does not have a good grasp on how states will be impacted by these regulations,” he wrote.

“I think states should have some flexibility. In the meantime, I will continue to push for passage of my legislation for cleaner, more efficient energy.”

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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