US Chamber vs. Our Air: A Brief History

Efforts to gut the Clean Air Act continued in the Senate today with barbs being traded back and forth between Senators on either side of the issue. Theatrical Senate hearings, however, can obscure the real dramatic players in this tragedy/farce. As important as individual Senators are to the fight, the real villain is none other than — you guessed it — the US Chamber of Commerce.

As it turns out, the US Chamber has fought clean air regulations for decades. To dig into the history of US Chamber opposition to clean air, our lungs, and a healthy environment, we're turning to a great 2008 blog post from Frank O'Donnell at Campaign for America's Future. Read on for more info and then make sure to head over to our friends at 1Sky to join up in the fight to protect the Clean Air Act and all that depends on it.

Now, on to the Chamber of Commerce. You may have heard of its most recent scare campaign about greenhouse gases. In an effort to frighten Congress into taking away Environmental Protection Agency authority over greenhouse gases (in other words, to reverse the big Supreme Court decision) the Chamber has been running about contending the EPA could soon be cracking down on churches, donut shops and melon farms!

When it comes to clean-air controls, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce always seems to favor hysteria over fact. Its current campaign should be dismissed as just one most scare tactic aimed at keeping those membership dues rolling in.

How credible are these dire predictions? Is the donut really about to become an endangered species? Perhaps here is where history should be our guide.

For the Chamber has a proud legacy of hyperbole, hysteria – and downright inaccuracy – when it comes to clean air requirements. In fact, the Chamber has been waging rhetorical war against the Clean Air Act for almost four decades. A couple of examples perhaps should suffice to enable us to evaluate the current scare campaign.

In 1971, a year after passage of the landmark Clean Air Act, the Chamber predicted the law would lead to “collapse of entire industries” – including oil and automotive.

This was later seen as a classic example of industry hyperbole – especially because the Clean Air Act has actually led to the creation of scores of thousands of highly skilled jobs.

But the Chamber was only warming up. In the mid-1970s, it opposed the entire concept of limiting air pollution in already-clean areas.

Yes, under the Chamber’s approach, areas such as the Grand Canyon would have been left completely unprotected from air pollution.

As Time Magazine noted, the Chamber claimed that clean-air restrictions would "mandate undeveloped areas into eternal poverty."

Boy, doesn’t this silly rhetoric sound familiar? Once again, the Chamber was left with egg on its face.

Let’s jump ahead to 1997, when the Clinton EPA under Carol Browner was seeking to update and strengthen clean air standards for smog and soot. The Chamber was a leading voice in opposition, asserting that tougher clean air standards amounted to a “travesty” and were “about selling a political agenda in an empty green bag.'' (As the late comedian Anna Russell used to tell her audiences while describing the plot of a Wagnerian opera , “I’m not making this up you know.” )

Ah, but the Chamber wasn’t done with that issue. You may recall that in the litigation over those clean air standards, the Chamber asserted the Clean Air Act was unconstitutional! Justice Scalia, never to be confused with some left-leading judge, wrote a unanimous opinion slapping down the Chamber’s whacko assertions.

Yes, unfortunately the Chamber has assailed other clean-air controls in the most recent decade. It opposed limits on toxic mercury from power plants, claiming that was simply an “attempt by extreme environmental groups to hinder economic growth and force jobs overseas.”

Even more recently, the Chamber has opposed new smog and soot standards. You may recall that Chamber Vice President Bill Kovacs vowed a “royal fight” against tougher smog standards.

You may note that the Chamber did win at least a partial victory in that “royal fight” because the Bush administration ignored science and covertly considered costs when setting those standards. And so now the Chamber would have us believe the EPA would run wild, putting limits on donuts?! Please.

Of course, the Chamber also ran silly knockoff Harry-and-Louise style commercials against the ill-fated Lieberman-Warner climate legislation.

Well, we could probably find other examples, but these should suffice. After all, how many times can you get away with crying wolf? These guys don’t exactly have the Bracewell Giuliani level of sophistication.