Illustration by Robert Fresson

Fueling dissent

How the oil industry set out to undercut clean air

After casting doubt on climate change for decades, industry consultants have turned their attention to air pollution

Illustration by Robert Fresson

SAN ANTONIO, Texas ― On sunny days, when his classmates at St. John Bosco Elementary School run out to play, Gabriel Rosales heads to the school nurse for a dose of Albuterol. The fine mist opens his airways, relaxing the muscles in his chest. Without it, recess could leave the 9-year-old gasping for breath. He gets a second dose at the end of the day before heading home.

Gabriel Rosales, 9, and his father, Gabe, in San Antonio, Texas.
Tom Dart/Guardian US

Over the past year, Gabriel’s asthma has worsened. Visits to the emergency room, shortened trips to the park, and reliance on inhalers have become his new norm. “It got to the point where I couldn’t even leave him with anybody,” said his father, Gabe, who works as a consultant to the National Association of Public Employees, a workers’ advocacy group, and a seasonal field director of the Bexar County Democratic Party. “One time he almost looked blue.”

Gabriel’s health is deteriorating alongside air quality in San Antonio, where oil and gas development, a hotter climate and a growing population have combined to spell misery for a city that once boasted clean air compared to other Texas metropolitan areas. Part of the problem lies southeast of the city in the Eagle Ford Shale, a 400-mile-long hub of hydraulic fracturing that unleashes microscopic particles and smog-causing, ground-level ozone.

The state’s environmental regulator — the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — hasn’t made things better. In fact, it’s followed in the footsteps of Big Oil’s biggest lobby, the American Petroleum Institute, which has forestalled progress on ozone for decades. Using consultants also hired by API, the commission has spent millions of taxpayer dollars in an effort to undercut scientific evidence linking particulate matter and ozone with bronchitis, asthma and premature death.

Air quality is the new frontier for climate-change skeptics long tied to API. The institute has fueled uncertainty on climate by producing what critics call misleading scientific and economic studies. Now, by attempting to discredit established research on ozone and fine particles, API and its cadre of doubters are trying to undermine the Clean Air Act — the landmark U.S. law credited with saving millions of lives. Working in concert with other free-market groups, they’re taking their message to Capitol Hill. API officials did not grant interview requests from the Center for Public Integrity.

Residents of San Antonio’s low-income, mostly Latino neighborhoods — like Hillcrest, where Gabriel Rosales lives — bear the brunt of poor air quality even if they aren’t in ozone hot spots, said Mario Bravo, an outreach specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund. “They have less access to health care,” Bravo said. “They have less access to transportation to get to the health-care providers.”

The Eagle Ford Shale in Texas is a 400-mile long hub of oil and gas activity.
Lance Rosenfield/Prime

‘A lot like climate’

In June, two peer-reviewed studies trumpeted a conclusion at odds with years of solid science: fine-particle pollution long linked to premature death and chronic illness isn’t as dangerous as health advocates contend. If true, the findings would call into question health benefits claimed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has set ever-tightening air-quality standards.

There was a catch, however. The articles — which were published within a week of one another — appeared in Critical Reviews in Toxicology and Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, two journals favored by industry consultants alleged to promote pay-for-play science. And both studies were funded by API, a trade group that has spent $40 million since 2013 to lobby Congress on topics ranging from taxes to global warming.


“Our study is published...air quality does not kill. $600 million of EPA junk science up in smoke,” climate-change skeptic and Donald Trump acolyte Steve Milloy tweeted in June, linking to the Regulatory Toxicology article. During a congressional luncheon a month later, the former coal executive took credit for conceiving the study before turning it over to friend, S. Stanley Young, and two other statisticians, who authored the final article. No mention of Milloy’s involvement is made in the publication.

Some of the same data were used in the Critical Reviews article published by Louis Anthony “Tony” Cox Jr., which also disputed the link between fine particles and mortality. Cox, a biostatistician from Colorado, started consulting for API in 1988. Cox disclosed that his paper “benefitted from close proofreading and copy-editing suggestions from API” but denied in an interview that his findings were influenced. In November, he was named the next chair of the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, drawing criticism from groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The science on particle pollution, much like the science on global warming, is exhaustive and widely accepted, with thousands of studies pointing to serious health implications. The World Health Organization notes that particulate matter “affects more people than any other pollutant,” with effects observed at even “very low concentrations.” The particles — found in automotive and industrial exhaust and smaller than one-fifth of the width of a strand of hair — form a toxic mix with ozone that lodges deep in the lungs. Unlike Cox, most researchers are no longer fixated on whether this form of pollution is fundamentally dangerous; they worry instead about whether it can cause — not just exacerbate — chronic illness.

Attacking the science is one way of undermining the Clean Air Act, said John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which advocates for more protective air-quality standards. The Clean Air Act is routinely hailed as one of the most cost-effective federal laws, even by business groups. In 2015, the EPA estimated that the law will have saved the U.S. economy $2 trillion by 2020 while costing $65 billion to implement. About 85 percent of the act’s benefits come from reducing fine-particle pollution, which raises the risk of early death. Opponents of the law “deny that air pollution is deadly … or even harmful in order to try to pretend that no benefits are delivered,” Walke said.

Steve Milloy
Illustration by Robert Fresson

Milloy’s July luncheon at the Rayburn House Office Building — billed as a “congressional staff and media briefing” — was little more than a plug for his latest book, “Scare Pollution: Why and How to Fix the EPA,” which condemns the “echo chamber of deceptive science” on ozone and fine particles. The event was hosted by Myron Ebell, who chairs the Cooler Heads Coalition, a climate-skeptics’ group that began as an alliance of free-market think tanks. “It’s a lot like climate,” Milloy told the audience. “This stuff is pulled out of thin air.”

“It’s a lot like climate... This stuff is pulled out of thin air.”

Reached for comment, Milloy said the study is not an attack on the Clean Air Act but part of his 20-year effort to expose the EPA’s “garbage-in, garbage-out” air pollution research. He denied having any formal ties to API. “I am very, very disappointed in the American Petroleum Institute and all the oil companies for not defending their products, for leaving the science to people like me,” he said.

Young, who authored the study, stood behind its findings and disputed the idea that industry funding presents ethical conflicts. His study data are publicly available, he said, but the EPA isn’t as transparent. Ebell agreed, accusing the agency of using “junk science” to justify air-quality and greenhouse-gas regulation.

Despite their misgivings about the EPA, all three men have become tethered to the agency. Earlier this year, Ebell oversaw the EPA transition for Trump, leading a group that included Milloy. Young was named to the EPA’s Science Advisory Board in October.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., co-founder of the Senate Climate Action Task Force, complained that such appointments have become all too common.  “These people were fringe fanatics and industry stooges fighting on behalf of the industry a propaganda war against science,” he said.

Milloy and Ebell were listed among the authors of a $2 million plan to amplify uncertainty in climate science — as revealed in a 1998 API memo leaked to The New York Times. Both say the memo grew out of an API brainstorming session that never resulted in concrete action, with Milloy calling it “just a big joke.”

Years before, API had refuted the very concept of global warming under President Charles DiBona, who joined the institute shortly after a stint as energy policy advisor to Richard Nixon in the 1970s. White House communications show that DiBona regularly met with then-API President Frank Ikard, a close friend of Nixon’s, before becoming Ikard’s deputy in 1974.

“You heard that a scientific consensus now exists,” DiBona said during API’s annual meeting in 1996. “This claim is beyond misleading; it is dead wrong.” He borrowed an analogy from MIT physicist Richard Lindzen, who likened climate models to Ouija boards. By 2003, a group of scientists funded by API had turned out the first of several studies characterizing the warming trend as a natural phenomenon.

The same year, however, the United Nations was holding its ninth conference on climate change —  focusing on how to mitigate warming. In 2001, an international consortium of scientists had delivered its third report on the trend, reaffirming findings that climate change was real and manmade.

Reached by phone recently, DiBona declined to answer any questions about the organization he led for 18 years. Months after retiring from API in 1997, DiBona joined the board of Halliburton, an oilfield-service company then headed by future vice president Dick Cheney. DiBona is now an API honorary lifetime director and an advisory chairmanfor a mining investment company based in the Cayman Islands.

In recent years, fringe views espoused by API have found a receptive audience in U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), whose climate-denial credentials rival those of Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Since Smith became chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in 2013, the panel has handed out dozens of subpoenas — many to scientists at regulatory agencies and environmental groups — aiming to debunk climate research.

Smith — whose district includes San Antonio — has opened the committee’s hearing rooms to Cooler Heads Coalition events such as Milloy’s book promotion and briefings that urged the United States to drop out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. In February, he reissued a controversial subpoena to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is investigating ExxonMobil’s historical knowledge on climate change. Since he joined Congress in 1989, Smith’s top campaign donors have been from the oil and gas sector, which gave him at least $764,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Smith did not respond to requests for comment.

In 2016, Influence Map, a nonprofit environmental research group, estimated that ExxonMobil had spent about $27 million on “climate obstruction” lobbying and advertising campaigns. That amount was dwarfed by the $65 million API spent on similar efforts, the group found. ExxonMobil is one of the oldest and largest API members.

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX)
U.S. House of Representatives

‘Tired, old industry argument’

In July, the House passed a bill targeting what its proponents called “job-killing regulations” — namely, bedrock air-quality standards. Its lead author was Rep. Pete Olson, a Republican from the ozone-plagued Houston area. All but four of the 229 “aye” votes were cast by Republicans, Lamar Smith among them.

Under Olson’s bill, states would have until 2025 to meet the EPA’s latest ozone limit, which was supposed to take effect in October. The agency, which is legally required to update air standards to keep pace with evolving science, would be obligated to review rules for pollutants once a decade, as opposed to once every five years.

The 2017 bill is the latest iteration of a proposal Olson first floated in 2015, seeking to delay regulation of ozone. The same day his bill passed, 144 trade groups, including regional offshoots of API, pledged their support in a letter to Congress. Oil and gas interests have been Olson’s top political contributors, donating more than $1 million to his campaigns since 2007. A Senate version of the bill has not come up for a vote.

In an email, Olson’s office wrote that the congressman “believes the Clean Air Act is critically important” but has “fundamental concerns” about Texas’ ability to meet tighter standards. Pollution control, the email said, “can be done rationally and with an eye on our economy.”

By law, the EPA is not allowed to consider cost when setting ozone standards, but that hasn’t stopped API and other industry groups from injecting economics into the policy debate. Much like scientists for hire, economists have provided API with grist to challenge regulations. Armed with seemingly authoritative studies from firms such as NERA Economic Consulting, the institute has recast issues such as action on climate change as reckless moves that could tank the U.S. economy. NERA, whose clients include API collaborators such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Chemistry Council, was co-founded by Irwin Stelzer, an economist who works at the Hudson Institute, a free-market think tank.

Such studies, like the NERA report Trump cited when he announced the U.S. exit from the Paris climate agreement earlier this year, can be “extremely misleading,” often tallying every conceivable cost and ignoring every possible benefit, said Ben Franta, a Stanford University researcher investigating API’s climate activities. Because data underlying these reports are proprietary, Franta said, in many cases they can neither be verified or debunked. What’s left are unsupported arguments: “New ozone rules could be the most expensive ever,” reads an API webpage linking to dozens of NERA findings.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has taken a tack similar to API’s. Since 2013, the TCEQ has paid NERA more than $870,000 for economic research on ozone — a topic the firm studied earlier for API. More than $2.2 million in taxpayer funds have also been spent on contracts with Gradient — a consultancy previously hired by API to question the benefits of a stricter ozone limit. The TCEQ declined to comment on this story but on its website describes its mission as protecting the “state’s public health and natural resources consistent with sustainable economic development.”

Anne E. Smith, a managing director at NERA,  did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment. She was among several industry-friendly voices at a 2015 TCEQ ozone workshop in Austin led by Michael Honeycutt,  the agency’s director of toxicology. Other speakers included Gradient scientists, the editor of Critical Reviews in Toxicology, industry toxicologist Michael Dourson and air researcher Robert Phalen, known for saying the air “is a little too clean for optimum health.”

The group’s findings were later referenced by Honeycutt at a House Science Committee hearing, where he argued against a tighter EPA ozone standard. Honeycutt said the risks posed by the pollutant were “small” and any change could discourage people from “outdoor exercise.”

Speakers at the Austin workshop have risen to prominence in the Trump administration. This fall, Honeycutt, Anne Smith, Dourson and Phalen were all named to key EPA science positions as either advisers or staff. Their fringe views on ozone — championed by API — have alarmed public-health advocates and run counter to the EPA’s own findings. The agency strengthened its ozone standard in 2015 after reviewing more than 1,000 new studies.

Economics has long figured into API’s strategy to derail ozone rules. In 1971, the newly formed EPA set the ozone standard at 80 parts per billion, but in 1979 took an unexpected U-turn and weakened it to 120 ppb — angering industry and environmentalists alike. The latter called the reversal scientifically indefensible and accused the EPA of prioritizing economics over health. API promptly sued the EPA, with President DiBona claiming the relaxed standards would still cost “billions of dollars without significantly improving the quality of the environment or the health of the public.”

Spurred by lawsuits from the American Lung Association that compelled it to update air standards based on the latest science, the EPA reverted to its original 80 ppb ozone limit in 1997. The cap is now at 70 ppb, though even that number may not be protective enough, as some research has found health effects at 60 ppb.

Nonetheless, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt — a former Oklahoma attorney general with deep ties to oil and gas — tried to keep the 70 ppb standard from taking effect. He backed off on the delay after 16 state attorneys general sued the agency in August. In a lawsuit filed this month, however, environmental groups accused the EPA of failing to enforce the rule.

Pruitt had put forth what Dr. Greg Diette — a lung specialist at Johns Hopkins University who has testified in favor of tighter ozone standards — calls “a tired, old industry argument. They say, ‘It’s going to put us out of business,’ and it doesn’t,” Diette said. “All this stuff always comes down to who has to pay.”

But not all costs are economic. High ozone days are the hardest for Diette’s patients. “It can be terrifying — it’s the sensation of not being able to breathe,” he said. “Some feel as if they're going to pass out. Some feel as if they're going to die.”

Asthmatics can do little more than hide indoors in an air-conditioned environment. The only other option, Diette said, is to move.

Relocating isn’t possible for the Rosales family of San Antonio, who are uninsured and struggling to keep up with the cost of Gabriel’s medications. The air he breathes is expected to degrade further as oil prices rebound and drilling picks up in the Eagle Ford.