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Zero for Effort: Environmental Scorecard Flunks California Congressmembers

Figures compiled from campaign contribution records show that fossil fuel industries donate almost exclusively to Republican candidates. “They’ve gone out of their way to help oil and gas and coal,” says one environmentalist.

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California’s reputation as a world leader in environmental policy and innovation has taken a serious hit in the current Congress. The League of Conservation Voters’ 2017 Environmental Scorecard, released Tuesday, shows a Golden State delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives deeply divided over core protections to clean air and water, wildlife and wild lands. On several occasions, Californians have led Trump administration initiatives to hack away at the pillars of national environmental law – usually in favor of fossil fuel industries.

The scorecard is an annual league publication that assigns each U.S. senator and representative a score from 0 to 100 based on their pro-environmental voting record, with demerits for missed votes. Both California senators and 19 of its representatives earned perfect scores of 100 – the most of any state – yet they were somewhat overshadowed by the deeply countervailing effects of the state’s Republican delegation, all of whose members received scores of nine or less, and three of whom received flat zeros.

“California is really a story of contrasts,” said Sara Chieffo, the league’s vice president of government affairs. “We had votes clustered at either end of the 0-100 score range. We have a number of Republican members of the House delegation who like to say they stand up for clean air and clean water, and are trying to do the right thing for the environment – Issa, Walters, Rohrabacher come to mind – but they all do abysmally poor on the scorecard. Those members, respectively, get a 9, a 3, and a 9.”

Tom McClintock, whose district covers a huge swath of the eastern Central Valley and the Sierras, got a zero. So did Doug LaMalfa of Oroville, and Duncan Hunter of eastern San Diego County. In a wildly active year that saw 35 votes in the House and 19 in the Senate, they were in lockstep with a Trump administration that the Scorecard calls the “most anti-environmental administration in our nation’s history,” trying to roll back as many environmental regulations as possible, including many air-quality rules that were seen as hampering energy development.

For Californians suffering poor air quality in these same districts, the consequences could not be more serious.

“I couldn’t sleep last night because I was too busy coughing!” said Kira Hinslea, a 6 year old living with asthma in the Central Valley town of Wasco. “I had asthma all night. And now I have dark circles under my eyes.”

Wasco is in Kern County which, according to the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2017” report, has some of the very highest levels of ozone and small particulate matter pollution in the country. About one in every six children in the San Joaquin Valley between 5 and 17 years old have asthma, which is higher than the state average, and in Kern County the rate is over 18 percent.

“She loves being outside, but she very rarely gets to go outside because of the air quality,” said Kira’s mother, Shirley Hinslea, who monitors the air quality outside 24/7 with an app on her phone. “If the air quality is red outside, she’s not allowed to go outside at all. And if it’s yellow, she’s allowed to go outside for 20 minutes, with a mask, and that’s about the extent.”

Kevin Hamilton, CEO of the Central California Asthma Collaborative in Fresno, which provides education and direct services to asthma sufferers and advocates on their behalf – including Shirley and Kira Hinslea – says he and his staff have studied all the possible causes of asthma, including the effects of poverty, and have narrowed it down to one–air pollution.

Yet their representatives in Congress vote against clean air. Fresno’s congressman, Democrat Jim Costa, earned a withering score of 31 on this year’s scorecard, the lowest of any Democrat in California’s House delegation. Costa was an outlier in the Democratic ranks. He not only voted to delay implementation of more stringent air quality standards and to hamstring the ability of the EPA to set effective standards under the Clean Air Act (see our story here), he also cast 11 other strongly anti-environmental votes last year. These included votes to roll back President Obama’s Stream Protection Act, which made coal companies responsible for watersheds near their mining operations, and to roll back a rule that prevented oil and gas companies from venting methane into the atmosphere on public and tribal lands.

Costa, however, was an eco-warrior compared to Central Valley Republicans Devin Nunes of Visalia and Bakersfield’s Kevin McCarthy. Both are ardent supporters of President Trump, and each scored 3. Hanford’s David Valadao and Jeff Denham of Modesto both scored 6, and Steve Knight of Santa Clarita got a 9.

Costa, Nunes, McCarthy, Valadao, Denham and coastal San Diego and Orange County Rep. Darrell Issa did not reply to requests for comment.

“I feel like we’re moving backward 20 years,” said Hamilton. “This is a whole new level of – I’ll just say it – stupidity. We have the data. It’s there. It’s not manufactured, it’s medical records, it’s laboratory work, it’s scientific study. The only driver that I can see is the economic driver: [they say] we have to deal with [poor air quality] because it’s the only way we can have a solid economy. Which is just not true.”

The League of Conservation Voters’ Chieffo singled out three California congressmen for leading on anti-environmental bills, the most sweeping being the “Midnight Rules Relief Act,” sponsored by 15-year Congressional veteran Issa. Issa’s bill, which passed the House weeks before President Trump was even sworn in, assumed that all executive actions taken in the last 60 legislative days of an outgoing presidential administration were rushed and ill-considered. It modified the shadowy Congressional Review Act to allow congress to overturn all those executive actions with a single vote.

Would have allowed, that is, if the Senate had taken it up, which it did not. This was the case with a fair number of bills squeezed through the House in 2017, including the other two bills spearheaded by Californians. Tom McClintock led on the “Water Supply Permitting Coordination Act,” which passed in the House and would have overhauled the permitting of water projects in the West, severely undermining the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA, in the process.

And David Valadao, Kira Hinslea’s congressman, spearheaded the “Gaining Responsibility on Water Act” (GROW), which also passed in the House and would have secured more water for California farmers at the expense of wildlife protections and public input on water projects.

Water bills notwithstanding, most of the environmental measures herded through the House in 2017 were designed to ease regulation on energy development. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that California delegation members who voted for them also received sizable campaign contributions from the energy industry. In 2016, for instance, Kevin McCarthy received $335,150 in campaign donations from oil and gas, and has pulled in a whopping $1.2 million from energy interests during his short congressional career. Valadao received $53,350 from the oil and gas industry in 2016. Denham pulled in $188,999 that year, and Steve Knight $50,400. Nunes received $72,500 and has received $362,200 over the course of his congressional career.

Figures compiled from campaign contributions records show that fossil fuel industries donate almost exclusively to Republican candidates. One exception is Jim Costa. He received $94,525 in 2016 and almost $468,974 from oil and gas interests during his congressional tenure.

“They’ve gone out of their way to help oil and gas and coal,” said Chieffo. “And I should say that another theme of the year, despite the gridlock in Congress and the assault on the environment from the Trump Administration, is that we’re seeing progress being made on clean energy and climate in states across the country, even in Republican-led states. So the narrative really is one of contrasts with just how out of touch this administration is.”

It never occurred to Shirley Hinslea that the government might help her daughter. “I never thought about it, honestly. I’m too busy,” she said. She is deeply grateful that members of the Central California Asthma Collaborative have come to her house and helped her get the equipment she uses to monitor the humidity and other conditions that trigger Kira’s asthma.

“It wasn’t the government,” she said. “It wasn’t the Senate. It was the Asthma Collaborative themselves that did it.” But she holds out hope for government action: “Having something for the air quality would be pretty nice!”


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