Clean Air Villain of the Month

August 2002


A key political operative in the Bush presidential campaign -- and a continuing "advance man" for presidential forays into West Virginia -- is promoting outrageous pro-coal industry views aimed at weakening national air pollution standards for fine particulate soot.

The operative, John H. McCutcheon, is a "senior policy advisor" in the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy. The nonprofit Clean Air Trust today named him its "Villain of the Month" for August 2002.

McCutcheon, previously was the West Virginia coordinator for the Bush presidential campaign and a Bush elector in the Electoral College. Last month, McCutcheon sent official DOE comments to the Environmental Protection Agency. The comments included the astonishing assertion that a key component of fine particle soot is "chemically benign." (Key medical experts we have checked with are sputtering at this contention, saying the claim is so "spurious" and "ignorant" that it barely warrants a response.)

In the process, McCutcheon appears to be using his position not only to protect the coal industry, but also to influence Bush Administration environmental policy to maintain the President's popularity in the coal-rich state of West Virginia. 1

EPA is in the middle of reviewing the tougher and controversial national air quality standards for fine particle soot set by the Clinton Administration in 1997. EPA set much tougher standards in 1997 after concluding that tens of thousands of people are dying prematurely each year from breathing fine particle soot. The coal and electric power industries were among the fiercest opponents of those standards, which will lead to a crackdown on coal-based emissions.

As a prelude to reviewing the actual standards, EPA is currently reviewing the numerous scientific studies involving fine particle soot. EPA scientists have linked tiny sulfate particles -which come from burning coal and other fossil fuels -- to hospital admissions for asthma attacks and other breathing problems.

McCutcheon assailed EPA's conclusions in formal comments to the agency on behalf of the Energy Department's Office of Fossil Energy. In a cover memo, McCutcheon called on EPA to conduct numerous additional studies. The detailed comments he forwarded asserted -- astonishingly -- that sulfate pollution is a "chemically benign substance." As evidence of this, the submission notes that types of sulfates are contained in certain asthma and heart medications.

McCutcheon's assertion that sulfate is benign may echo comments coming from coal-burning electric power companies, 2 but it is certainly way out of the mainstream of scientific and medical opinion. Other medical experts point out that McCutcheon's assertion is really an apples-and-oranges comparison -- and that other potentially lethal substances such as arsenic and cyanide are sometimes used in medicines, but that doesn't mean they are safe to ingest alone. Hello -- has anyone ever heard of Botox?

Of course, McCutcheon's position may be less surprising when you realize he is a prominent figure in West Virginia coal and Republican circles. In 2000 he was named Presidential Candidate Bush's campaign coordinator and spokesman for West Virginia.

After using coal-based politics to help swing the pivotal state of West Virginia into the Bush camp, McCutcheon was put in his current job at DOE.

While in that job, McCutcheon continues to double as the President's "advance man" on political trips to West Virginia, including the one he made on the 4th of July. In a January 2002 Bush trip to West Virginia, McCutcheon was part of a small group who met with the President, White House political strategist Karl Rove, and White House political director Ken Mehlman (author of the recently leaked White House strategy document that noted the 2004 re-election strategy includes "maintaining" constituents interested in "coal and steel.") It would appear that part of McCutcheon's job is to keep the West Virginia coal interests happy in order to keep West Virginia in the "red" column in 2004.

It is clear that the coal industry views McCutcheon as one of its own: the industry-dominated National Coal Council celebrated his appointment to the Energy Department job by noting that "the full team is now in place for fossil issues... Having the full fossil team in place in time for the debate on these [air pollution] issues is critical."

1 We have seen other instances in which Bush environmental policy appears to have been crafted for re-election purposes. For example, the administration overturned recommendations by career EPA officers and refused to allow California to sell reformulated gasoline without ethanol. Even though it would mean more smog and higher gas prices in California -- and even though the decision was opposed by the oil industry -- the decision was very popular in Iowa, which Bush hopes to win next time. Similarly, the administration banned oil drilling off the coast of Florida (but not California). And, of course, the entire Bush policy towards emissions from coal-burning electric utility plants -- which would lead to more coal mining in Appalachia and more coal burning overall -- is aimed at keeping such states as West Virginia, Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky in the "red" column in 2004 even though it will lead to more pollution and global warming.

2 The argument is strikingly similar to that used by an industry consultant who testified on behalf of a power company in Connecticut last fall.