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Big Oil stands in way of clean air

Heavy haze obscures downtown Fresno’s skyline in January 2014. The American Lung Association says California’s air quality is getting better, but the oil industry is blocking further improvements.
Heavy haze obscures downtown Fresno’s skyline in January 2014. The American Lung Association says California’s air quality is getting better, but the oil industry is blocking further improvements. Fresno Bee file

Bakersfield parents Jessica Sida-Romero and Eugene Romero have spent many restless nights with their sons Nathan, 3, and Andrew, 11, who suffer from asthma. They closely monitor air quality, and when the air is bad, the boys can’t play outside.

Families like these represent the front lines in the fight for clean air in California, Oregon and Washington.

While asthma is perhaps the most well-known health impact of dirty air, it can compound the difficulties of chronic conditions like diabetes, and can even cause heart attacks, lung cancer, strokes, and early death. Women in polluted areas are more likely to give birth prematurely and to lower-weight babies.

You would think everyone supports clean air, but this isn’t the case. All along the Pacific Coast, the oil and fossil fuel industry has aligned its political spending and lobbying might against clean energy and climate protection. Over the past five years, the oil industry spent $6 million on lobbyists in Oregon and Washington. In California, it spent $22 million in 2015 alone, and another $3.5 million so far in 2016.

By a landslide, the biggest spender in all three states was the Western States Petroleum Association. It uses massive political expenditures, bankrolled by oil company giants, to deceive lawmakers and scare the public.

Whenever legislators introduce common-sense bills, or regulators aim to improve air quality, an army of oil industry lobbyists descends in vigorous opposition. The progress we’ve made reducing air pollution has occurred not because of the oil industry but despite it.

Last month, the American Lung Association released its 2016 State of the Air report. Up and down the West Coast, though many communities continue to face major air quality challenges, there is progress. For example, while Los Angeles still faces the worst ozone pollution of any U.S. metro area, it had the fewest unhealthy days in the 17 years of our report. Research from the University of Southern California shows that kids’ lung health has improved, both for those with asthma and without.

However, the report also highlighted how much work remains for the West Coast. Eighty-four percent of Californians are at risk from unhealthy air. In Oregon, five counties received a grade of “F” for particle pollution levels. In Washington, more than 506,000 adults and 104,000 kids have asthma.

On the political front, lawmakers are showing renewed courage in defending our right to breathe clean air. In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee has launched a cap on carbon emissions. Both Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed bills to step up the transition to renewable energy sources. California’s new renewable energy goal continues groundbreaking leadership to slash climate pollution.

Since the oil industry continues spending to maintain the status quo, we all must work harder to support good clean air and climate policies. For Jessica and Eugene’s sons in Bakersfield, relief can’t come soon enough.

Bonnie Holmes-Gen is senior director of air quality and climate change with the American Lung Association in California and can be contacted at bonnie.holmes-gen@lung.org. Carrie Nyssen is vice president of advocacy and air quality with the American Lung Association of the Mountain Pacific and can be contacted at carrie.nyssen@lung.org.

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