by Clifford Smith
FME Law Counsel

On June 2, the Obama Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled regulations that require states to cut carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030.  A radical, unilateral move that will cause energy prices to “skyrocket”, cost countless jobs, and disproportionally hurt the poor, it’s not surprising that the Obama Administration sought to enlist allies that would put a more friendly face on these radical regulations.  In this case, the face the Administration sought to is that of the American Lung Association (ALA).  On the very same day these regulations were unveiled, a publicly announced telephone “briefing” between President Obama and ALA was touted to news organizations and pushed by the White House and the ALA.

Most Americans probably know of the ALA from their anti-smoking campaign, and have generally favorable views of them as a respectable and well known health charity.  Indeed, the organization was originally founded as a vehicle to help people with tuberculosis.  However, looking deeper into the ALA’s recent history demonstrates that the group has long since transitioned from a traditional health charity to big money Washington, DC lobbyists, often funded at the taxpayer’s expense or by questionable corporate backers, supporting or opposing causes for money that are only loosely related to any sort of health charity cause.  In his research paper, “Pandering for Profit: The Transformation of Health Charities to Lobbyists”, economist James Bennett explained that “

[T]he ALA has mutated into a powerful lobbying organization by selling its reputation; the ALA has ‘hocked its halo’ in order to do well while purporting to do only good.”

Indeed, it is clear “halo buying” is exactly what the Obama Administration is doing in cloaking itself in the ALA, and the ALA are quite willing to part with their halo for the right price.  The EPA’s radical new rules are supposedly being created to combat climate change, yet the ALA’s press release on the regulations focuses on public health, stating that, “Evidence is clear that pollution from power plants is harming the health of our nation.”  In other words, the Obama Administration just wants the regulation to get through for political purposes, and it will use whatever PR methods and front groups or rationalizations that it can to ensure the regulation sticks .

Many of ALA’s claims are also highly debatable, as one might expect from a lobbyist who represents an interest group as opposed to an unbiased observer.  Much of ALA’s push in favor of ever stricter controls on power plants is a claim that pollution from such plants contributes to increased asthma rates.  Yet overall, current understanding of risk factors for asthma are best summarized by Dr. Peyton Eggleston, who noted that, “Our understanding of the environmental influences [of asthma] is still in its infancy, but we can say that indoor exposures are more important than ambient pollutants and that bioaerosols containing allergenic proteins are especially important.”  This is supported by increasing asthma rates compared to decreased air pollution levels.  As Dr. Julie Goodman explains, “This indicates that lowering ambient criteria pollutant concentrations below current health-protective NAAQS will not have a meaningful impact on asthma.”

But the ALA is now a political/lobbying organization, not a medical charity, and it acts as such.  The same week as the regulations were unveiled, the ALA began a nationwide television campaign on many popular cable channels, touting the new rules in perfect coordination with the Obama White House’s public relations machine.  This behavior is neither unusual nor unique for the ALA.  Indeed, it is a large part of what the ALA does in its current form.  It engages in politics and lobbying for those who can contribute to it financially and in terms of power and influence.  FOIA requests made by the Energy and Environmental Legal Institute (E&E Legal) reveal that the ALA is not only frequently engaging in nakedly political activity, such as running political ads in the district of Congressman Fred Upton, Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and publishing other ads in political magazines like Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly, but that the first thing they do when they engage in such political activism, lobbying and other influence peddling is to brag about it to their friends in the EPA.  The email trail shows that news of their activism is quickly reported by the ALA to top EPA officials.  Beyond that, its lobbying efforts around Washington DC are well known on a whole host of issues, many only tangentially related to its original cause.

Clearly, these are not the kinds of activities one would expect from a “health care charity,” which is what most Americans believe ALA is.  Yet, by “hawking its halo,” and engaging in these kinds of political activities, the ALA is making lots of money. This money comes both from self-interested private sector donors and, even more troubling, from public sector grants.  The EPA has given over $20 million dollars in grants to the EPA in the past 10 years.  And by pushing this radical political agenda and holding themselves out to the highest bidder, ALA has abandoned their core mission. It is undeniable that these new EPA regulations disproportionally hurts the poor by causing a rise in energy prices, and those in the bottom fifth of the economic bracket spend nearly a quarter of their money on energy, while those in the top fifth spend only 4%.

“In essence, the Obama/ALA Agenda is a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the wealthy and well connected; an odd agenda for an administration that claims to want to fight inequality.  The end result is that the Obama/ALA agenda will take food off our children’s table and opportunity out of their future through the false alarmism spewed out of single interest environmental activists,” said Dr. David Schnare, a scientist and a lawyer who worked at the EPA for nearly three decades.

The ALA is not the only charity selling its soul to the highest bidder.  Since the late 80’s, other medical charities have followed a similar path for a variety of reasons related to changes in the way these charities were regulated as well as increasing federal government regulation in areas loosely related to their mission. But the ALA has done the best for itself by being the public face of radical environmental causes.  Given the well-known desire of more conventional “green” groups to explicitly destroy the coal industry, a position the Obama Administration still claims it opposes in spite of mountains of clear evidence to the contrary, it is understandable that he would shun more conventional green groups as part of his PR push and seek out a group like the ALA to put a “halo” over his efforts.

Yet people should not be fooled by the Obama Administration’s attempt to cloak themselves in a “charity” like the ALA, which has long since abandoned its charitable mission for political power, selling its “halo” to politicians who need it for PR reasons.  The underlying  policies that the Obama EPA is backing is still part of the same radical, unbalanced, unilateral and unscientific agenda, regardless of the misguided public relations campaign put behind it, be it cloaked in the ALA or not.