Polluters Rely on Old Rhetoric to Block Clean Energy Future

For 60 years, corporate polluters and their political allies have sought to slow and derail anti-pollution laws, often using the exact same arguments and wording. Today’s pushback against EPA proposals to cut CO2 emissions from power plants is no exception.
Rebecca John
Rebecca John
A coal-fired power plant in Wyoming. Credit: Greg Gobble (CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering proposals aimed at reducing climate-warming carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from existing coal and gas-fueled power plants. Power plants are the second-largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States, and the pollution standards, which are open for public comment until August 8, will mark a new milestone in climate action. But the United States’ biggest polluters and their political allies are pushing back — just as they have resisted every other landmark shift in the 60-year history of federal air pollution control.

“This administration is determined to advance its radical climate agenda and has made it clear they are hellbent on doing everything in their power to regulate coal and gas-fueled power plants out of existence, no matter the cost to energy security and reliability,” declared Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-WV) in a May 10 statement.

The National Mining Association (NMA) echoed Manchin’s fiery rhetoric, warning of “premature coal plant retirements,” alleging that these would pose “serious risks” and calling for “an energy policy reset to avoid an uneasy and potentially failing energy situation.”

“It’s truly an onslaught,” NMA’s President and CEO Rich Nolan told the AP, “designed to shut down the coal fleet prematurely.” 

These arguments were reiterated just today, August 1, in a letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan signed by 39 Senate Republicans who warned that the proposed rule will “negatively impact electric reliability across the country,” describing it as “rushed decision-making.”

This not-so-fast rhetoric is nothing new. Close inspection of the historic arguments used by the fossil fuel industry and its partners to justify their ongoing pollution of the earth’s atmosphere — whether it be by sulfur oxides, CO2, or methane — reveals the same delay-based messaging each time they have faced the prospect of regulation.

In the 1960s, as the American public grew increasingly concerned about coal-based air pollution, a spokesman for the United States’ most powerful coal lobby told senate lawmakers that the elimination of pollution could “be brought about only gradually” without “impairing the viability of any of our energy industries.”

“National policy must avoid imprudent attempts to make ‘great leaps forward,’” declared Philip Sporn in 1967. Sporn was the vice-chairman of the National Coal Policy Conference (NCPC), an alliance of coal interests that included the American Mining Congress and the National Coal Association (historic forebears of today’s National Mining Association). 

Statement of Philip Sporn, vice chairman, National Coal Policy Conference, 1967. See the entire statement in Document Cloud.

Instead, Sporn (who was also the former president of utilities giant American Electric Power), urged that policy should focus on “continuing research” aimed at alleviating “fossil fuel pollution” while expanding the “fullest possible use” of all energy industries, predominantly “coal, gas and oil.”

“Time,” he argued, “must be permitted for research to find solutions.” 

This call for more time — and more research into technological fixes that allow for the continued use of fossil fuels — is one of the arguments that the coal industry and a wider coalition of fossil fuel allies has used for 60 years to delay change and prevent regulation. Other tactics, some evident in Manchin’s and Nolan’s recent comments, include denying or doubting that a pollution problem exists and calling for further research; warning that regulations will hurt the economy or threaten living standards; playing to fears that regulations will limit energy supply, causing blackouts and shortages; stating that industry is already making great progress in fixing the problem voluntarily; and arguing that local and state governments, rather than the federal government, should manage pollution.

The polluter’s playbook includes… calling for more time to research technofixes; denying or doubting that a problem exists; scaremongering that regulations will hurt the economy, threaten living standards, and limit energy supply; insisting that industry is already making great progress in fixing the problem voluntarily; arguing that local and state governments, rather than the federal government, should be in charge.

“From coal to chemicals and pesticides to petroleum, these tactics have been around for decades,” says Melissa Aronczyk, professor at the School of Communication & Information at Rutgers University and co-author of “A Strategic Nature: Public Relations and the Politics of American Environmentalism.” 

“There are reasons you see the same tired rhetoric across so many polluting industries,” Aronczyk explains. In her view, trade associations like the National Mining Association work behind the scenes to protect industry at all costs. “Even if a company is breaking the rules,” she states, “they’ll push back against the rule-makers rather than acknowledge their polluting ways.”

Keep It Local 

In 1963, after “black rain” fell in his hometown of Boston, President John F. Kennedy made an initial attempt to bring the nationwide problem of air pollution under federal control in what would become the first Clean Air Act. This move, aimed specifically at tackling “interstate air pollution,” was strongly opposed by American Mining Congress (AMC), whose spokesman, J. Allen Overton, told the Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution that, “provisions giving the Federal Government broad authority to enforce air pollution abatement should not be enacted.” 

As a member of the National Coal Policy Conference (NCPC), the AMC stood alongside a range of coal-related industries (including oil, chemicals, steel, electrical utilities, and railroads) that aimed to use their collective power for mutual benefit.

Like many of its coalition partners, the AMC argued that air pollution should be the responsibility of state and local governments alone. “The very nature of air pollution is local in character and can be most effectively met at the local level,” Overton insisted in his statement to the Senate subcommittee, before emphasizing the AMC’s belief that it was “undesirable for the Federal Government to be a policeman in these activities.”

Instead of developing and enforcing national emissions standards, the AMC stated that the federal government’s role should be limited to providing “leadership through research and technical assistance.” 

During the hearings, Sen. Maurine B Neuberger (D-OR) challenged this common industry preference for state and local regulation, suggesting that it was predicated on the belief that polluters could exert greater influence with “municipal or State government” than “with the vast Federal Government that represents all the people.”

Sen. Neuberger challenged the industry’s preference to keep regulation local. See the entire statement in DocumentCloud.

Exactly 60 years later, the National Mining Association, which succeeded the American Mining Congress, is once again demanding that the EPA should “respect states’ authority to set performance standards” in response to the current efforts to set new regulations. The industry group is also arguing that the federal government should focus on providing “dedicated leadership” in making “technologies broadly commercially and economically viable and globally replicable.”

No Need vs. Immediate Need

In early 1963, the powerful trade group the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) also threw its weight against air pollution regulation. Samuel S. Johnson, chairman of NAM’s self-described Conservation Committee wrote a letter to Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-CT), the original sponsor of the first Clean Air Act, stating that federal regulation was unnecessary. According to NAM, “American industry” was already “spending hundreds of millions of dollars on air pollution control” with the result that there had been “visible improvement in conditions.” Consequently, there was “no necessity for the type of federal enforcement legislation” that Ribicoff was proposing. Amplifying this message, NAM also issued a national press release quoting directly from Johnson’s letter.

Similarly, a 2023 NAM press release issued in response to the EPA’s proposed new power plant emissions rule also implies that regulation is unnecessary because the industry is already responsibly controlling pollution. 

“Manufacturing in America is cleaner and more sustainable than ever” NAM proclaimed on May 11, declaring that “the power generation sector has been making historic strides in bringing zero-emission sources online.” 

A 1963 press release from the National Association of Manufacturers arguing that “there is no necessity” for federal pollution controls. See the entire statement in DocumentCloud.
Screenshot of a 2023 press release from National Association of Manufacturers that relies on arguments similar to those the organization used in 1963.

In December 1963 the Clean Air Act was signed into law, barely a month after President Kennedy’s assassination. However, partly as a result of industry pressure, authority rested largely with the states and the new law failed to solve what multiple witnesses in Congress had described as the “grave” and “serious”problem of air pollution.

That problem was not only confined to sulfur dioxide emissions from burning coal. Senators were also concerned about evidence of increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and the impact these might be having on the earth’s climate. 

In late 1963 a report titled “Study of Pollution – Air was entered into the Congressional record by Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-ME). It outlined evidence of “a gradual increase” in atmospheric CO2 from burning fossil fuels and the resulting potential temperature and climate impacts, including “more destructive storms.” 

An excerpt from “Study of Pollution — Air.” See the entire report in HathiTrust.

Two years later, a report by the President’s Science Advisory Committee — made public by President Lyndon B. Johnson on the grounds of the universal significance of its findings — further stated that “carbon dioxide is being added to the earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas” at such a rate that “by the year 2000 the increase” may produce “marked changes in climate. 

The coal industry was aware of the climate science of the time as well as discussions about the need for limits on carbon dioxide emissions. In August 1966, the Mining Congress Journal featured an article titled “Air Pollution and the Coal Industry” by James Garvey, a vice president of the National Coal Association (NCA). It discussed “serious studies” being conducted “to determine whether more restrictions should be placed on the emission of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.” Garvey reported on evidence indicating that the amount of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere was increasing “as a result of the combustion of fossil fuels” and could drive temperature increases and “vast changes in the climates of the earth” such as “melting of the polar icecaps” and the “inundation of many coastal cities, including New York and London.”

An excerpt from James Garvey’s 1966 article on air pollution in Mining Congress Journal. See the entire article in DocumentCloud.

Despite this knowledge, the industry continued to fight tooth-and-nail against regulations.

The following year, in 1967, the Senate Committee on Public Works (the parent committee of the Air and Water Pollution Subcommittee) would emphasize the “immediate need” to control air pollution, including CO2. 

“The problem of air pollution is neither local nor temporary. It is a universal problem, and, so long as our standard of living continues to increase, it will be a permanent threat to human well-being,” Muskie reported on behalf of the committee. “No one has the right to use the atmosphere as a garbage dump.”  

The 1967 Senate Committee on Public Works’ report that warned that if left unchecked, air pollution would present “a permanent threat to human well-being.” See further excerpts from the report in DocumentCloud.

Moving Too Fast

In January 1967, frustrated by lack of progress, lawmakers tried again to tighten control over the nation’s biggest polluters.

Once more, however, the coal industry and its allies were prepared. During the 11 days of public hearings on what would become the Air Quality Act, America’s foremost coal lobbyist and founder of the NCPC, Joseph Moody, organized testimony from across the fossil fuel industry, orchestrating a coordinated portfolio of views from the NCPC and its partners. 

Moody’s coalition included the country’s largest coal mining companies, Peabody and Consolidation Coal; electric utility American Electric Power; and the United Mine Workers of America. Echoing these positions, were the American Petroleum Institute; Humble Oil (now ExxonMobil); the Edison Electric Institute; the Pennsylvania Railroad; the National Steel Corp, which represented 41 other steel companies; NAM; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and the Automobile Manufacturers Association, with representatives from Chrysler and General Motors. 

Like their modern counterparts, the coal industry cohorts sought to delay a transition to cleaner fuels, pleading for time and emphasizing the current economic centrality of fossil fuels in the hope of maintaining the status quo and securing coal’s place in America’s future energy supply. Witnesses frequently reinforced each other’s positions, warning of the dangers of moving “too fast,” predicting “power shortages” as a consequence of regulation, advocating investment in research and technological fixes as the best methods for tackling pollution, while almost uniformly opposing national emissions standards and any prohibition of even the most toxic agents (including lead in gasoline). Often, they seemed to be speaking from the same script. 

For example, C. Howard Hardesty Jr., executive vice president of Consolidation Coal, declared that “our primary concern with this legislation and with the entire air pollution program is that we are trying to do too much too fast.” Moving “too hastily” could create “a serious fuels and power shortage.”

An excerpt from Hardesty’s argument against what would become the Air Quality Act. See the entire statement on HathiTrust.

This message was repeated by James Garvey of the NCA and the author of its 1966 article on the predicted dangers of CO2-induced temperature rises. Now in front of the Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution, faced with imminent regulation of sulfur oxides, Garvey declared that the “primary concern” of the NCA was that the nation was perhaps “moving too fast in the imposition of control measures.” He also conjured visions of power shortages, warning that alternatives to high-sulfur coal would not be sufficient “for meeting the power demand of the United States.”

Moody himself testified in front of the subcommittee, urging lawmakers to prioritize “economic realities” and criticizing what he described as “regulatory standards written in total disregard of technological feasibility … regardless of the economic disruption that inevitably will result.” 

Instead, Moody suggested “a program of sound and orderly air pollution abatement,” based on “research to close the technology gap.” If not, Moody warned there would be “fuel shortages.” 

Spoiler Alert: When the Clean Air Act of 1970 eventually introduced firm restrictions on sulfur emissions from existing power plants, the lights did not go out. Instead, the industry switched its fuel source, shifting from high-sulfur coal to low-sulfur coal. 

And yet, in 2023, the National Mining Association is once again similarly resisting any suggestion of fuel-switching, playing on fears around energy supply as a way of delaying limits on air pollution, and arguing that the EPA recognize “real-world constraints” to decarbonization. If not, the NMA warns that the agency’s “power sector strategy” will make it impossible to meet the energy demands of the U.S.”

A Potent Weapon

Today, the NMA and the wider fossil fuel industry have a powerful ally in Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), the chairman of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Manchin, who has a personal financial interest in coal-fired electricity generation, has vowed to oppose every EPA nominee if the Agency’s power plant emission regulations are approved and has previously been described as a “kingmaker” by a lobbyist for ExxonMobil on account of his influence over environmental legislation.

Similarly, throughout the 1960s, the fossil fuel industry also possessed a “potent weapon” in the form of Sen. Jennings Randolph (D-WV), the influential chairman of the Public Works Committee which held overall responsibility for air pollution legislation. Like Manchin, Randolph was a senate Democrat from West Virginia who had close relationships with his home state’s coal and chemical industries. 

On Randolph’s request, a number of amendments beneficial to the coal industry and its fossil fuel allies were inserted into the 1967 Air Quality Act. As documented by multiple scholars, these “Randolph Amendments” focused federal air pollution policy squarely on technological fixes aimed at reducing pollution from existing fuels rather than encouraging a transition to less-polluting alternatives. Essentially, they delivered exactly what the coal industry had demanded when Philip Sporn of the NCPC urged lawmakers to focus on “improved techniques” for the “use of fossil fuels” and called for “continuing research” to promote solutions that would not preclude the “fullest possible use” of all America’s “energy industries,” meaning primarily fossil fuels.

An excerpt from Sporn’s statement during the 1967 Air Pollution Hearings. See the entire statement on DocumentCloud.

This emphasis on technological solutions that allow for prolonged use of fossil fuels has dominated federal air pollution policy ever since.

For example, while the EPA’s new proposals incentivize potential fuel-source-switching to alternative technologies such as green hydrogen or renewables, they also open the door to the broader adoption of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which many argue is an unproven and potentially dangerous false solution. 

Despite CCS’s lack of proven success at scale, the industry has repeatedly championed it in public, promising reduced greenhouse gas emissions without the necessity of cutting consumption of coal, gas, or oil. For example, in May 2023 the NMA called for a “carbon capture moonshot,” claiming that emissions reductions cannot be achieved without its “deployment for all fossil fuels.” 

This same emphasis is also evident in international climate diplomacy. In May, COP28 President, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber (who heads the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company), announced that climate diplomacy should focus on a “phase out” of emissions from “all sectors” while leaving open the possibility of continued use of fossil fuels via the expansion of as-yet-unproven carbon capture technology.

“If Only We Had Known”

In 1970, the Clean Air Act Amendments prioritized “health and welfare” over “considerations of technology and economic feasibility.” Predictably, these provisions elicited outcry from all corners of the fossil fuel industry. The NCPC criticized “the rush to new legislation,” warning that “hasty, unrealistic solutions today may adversely affect both energy and pollution control requirements of tomorrow.” The AMC argued that provisions for considering “economic feasibility” should be re-instated. Standard Oil of Indiana (later BP) described the subcommittee’s decisions as “hasty,” urging that standards of performance for “all new stationary emission sources” (including power plants) be “modified” to recognize “commercial feasibility.” Ashland Oil called for “an orderly program to accomplish control goals, giving full consideration to economic impact.”

Fears of economic disruption were played upon most intensely by Lee Iacocca, the executive vice president of the Ford Motor Company and later CEO of Chrysler, who issued a 20-page statement calling the bill “a threat to the entire American economy and to every person in America.” 

Conferring with his fellow lawmakers, Sen. Muskie (D-ME) refused to “dilute” the bill by allowing economic considerations to take precedence, declaring that “What may seem economically prohibitive today may with the benefit of hindsight … look like a very cheap answer that we should have insisted upon at that time if only we had known.” 

In the event, the Clean Air Act did not threaten the entire American economy or every person in America.

But despite this, the same fear-mongering tactics are evident today. Responding to the EPA proposals in May of this year, NAM declared that “the U.S. cannot afford to shut down more than half of our power generation and grind our economy to a halt.” According to NAM, the EPA’s power plant rule presents “a grave risk” to the “economy and families.”

Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and author of “No Miracles Needed: How Today’s Technology Can Save Our Climate and Clean Our Air,” says the direct opposite is true. “The longer we keep coal, the higher the cost we will pay, not only for energy, but also for health and climate damage.” 

According to Jacobson, we already have “95% of what we need” to solve problems around the energy transition, but action is being stymied by the fossil fuel industry’s continued “lobbying against renewables, sowing confusion, and greenwashing.” Instead, Jacobson argues that what’s needed now is better “education about what is possible” and “the political will to implement useful solutions rapidly.”

Although there are certainly valid concerns around today’s energy transition, revisiting the fossil fuel industry’s arguments over the past six decades highlights the emptiness of its rhetoric and the long-term predatory nature of its delay-based arguments. 

However, while history sharply reveals the forces of obstruction, it also reveals other forces capable of dynamic change. 

In January 1963 political will was needed just as much as it is now. 

In his reply to the National Association of Manufacturers, Sen. Ribicoff emphasized that he would not be swayed by its arguments. Rebutting NAM’s assertion that air pollution regulation was unnecessary, Ribicoff noted that the facts of air pollution were “well documented,” that he regretted NAM’s opposition to “needed legislation,” and promised that he would “continue this fight undismayed.”

An excerpt from Sen. Ribicoff’s letter to Johnson at NAM. See the full letter on DocumentCloud.

Announcing the new power plant proposals in May 2023, EPA Administrator Michael Regan echoed Ribicoff’s determination. “It’s clear that we’ve reached a pivotal point in human history and that we must act now to protect our future,” declared Regan. “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity for real climate action. Failure is not an option. Indifference is not an option. Inaction is not an option … We must get this right; we only have one planet.”

Rebecca John
Rebecca John is a Research Fellow at the Climate Investigations Center. She is also a freelance journalist and award-winning documentary film maker. As a Producer and Director of the acclaimed “Extreme Oil” / “Curse of Oil” series for PBS /BBC her work was awarded a Cine Golden Eagle for News Analysis. Other award-winning and nominated series and films include “Churchill” for PBS ITV“The Secret World of Richard Nixon” for The History Channel/BBC and “Ambush In Mogadishu” for PBS Frontline/ BBC (winner of the Edward R. Murrow Overseas Press Club of America ‘Best Documentary on Foreign Affairs Award’). Follow her on X at @rebecca_John1.

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