- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 28, 2015

It’s not your parents’ American Lung Association anymore.

The iconic organization — formerly best known for its highly successful antismoking initiatives — in recent years has undergone a dramatic transformation and now lends its respected voice and identifiable brand to President Obama’s climate change agenda, often acting in lockstep with environmental activists and liberals on Capitol Hill.

ALA officials admit their broader strategy has morphed during Mr. Obama’s time in the White House, saying they recognize significant “policy opportunities” that come with a president who has vowed to make climate change a centerpiece of his final years in office.

But critics say the ALA has strayed so far from its roots that it now has become little more than a political arm of the Obama administration — a development some detractors see as deeply offensive given that many Americans simply aren’t familiar with the group’s ideological stances and may be more willing to heed its warnings about the dangers of climate change, especially the health risks it poses to children.

“It’s abhorrent to me that they seem to be exploiting children to advance this agenda. They have basically become the PR firm for the EPA,” said Thomas Pyle, president of the conservative Institute for Energy Research. “It’s frustrating because the organization’s mission, its stated mission, is pure. But I think they’ve certainly lost their way. I think they’ve gone beyond that.”

In addition to its broader environmental agenda, the organization also has come under fire from state regulators who charge the group has manipulated clean-air data in an effort to scare Americans into supporting even harsher pollution controls.

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Aside from specific questions about ALA’s presentation of air-quality information across the nation, there’s little doubt the group has become politically divisive. While also becoming a public face for Mr. Obama’s efforts to restrict carbon pollution from power plants, tighten the federal ozone standard and take other high-profile steps, the ALA has gone beyond words and has allied itself with the White House and environmental activists in the legal realm.

Last week the ALA said it would “formally intervene to legally defend the Clean Power Plan,” an EPA proposal designed to limit carbon pollution from power plants and shrink U.S. coal use. A coalition of states, along with major energy companies, has challenged the regulations in federal court.

The ALA has been a full-throated supporter of the plan throughout the EPA’s lengthy rule-making process, which led up to the proposal’s formal release earlier this year. The ALA also has run advertising campaigns in support of specific aspects of Mr. Obama’s environmental push, including the harsher ozone standards.

Some of the organization’s leaders say those moves are just the latest examples of ALA recognizing that Mr. Obama’s tenure represents the best chance to implement strong climate change policies and, in the process, they argue, reduce asthma cases and other health threats.

“The body of research has grown significantly over the last few years, showing some of the respiratory impacts of climate change. So over the last six or seven years, we’ve become more engaged in these topics and really increased our engagement as the policy opportunities” have arisen, said Paul Billings, senior vice president of advocacy and education with the ALA.

He went on to deny claims that the group has become a partisan weapon, a charge increasingly leveled at the ALA by top lawmakers on Capitol Hill and other opponents of Mr. Obama’s climate strategy.

“The [American] Lung Association has a 50-year history of working on air pollution issues we’re strictly nonpartisan. We’ve worked with Democrats and Republicans in Congress.”

Indeed, the ALA worked closely with lawmakers in both parties to enact key changes in policy, including the landmark 1990 amendments to the federal Clean Air Act.

In recent years, however, the ALA has actively attacked Republicans who oppose Mr. Obama’s environmental plans. In February 2012, for example, the group specifically blasted Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, for pushing legislation to block the EPA’s mercury and air toxic standards.

Those standards were tossed by the Supreme Court earlier this year.

The ALA’s evolving mission also has coincided with a drop in its fundraising, according to IRS records.

In 2009, for example, the organization’s financial forms show $18 million in “gifts, grants, contributions and membership fees.” In 2013 that figure shrunk to $6 million, records show.

Amid that drop, the ALA’s battles with Mr. Inhofe and other top lawmakers on Capitol Hill have intensified.

Mr. Inhofe argues the ALA has joined the ranks of the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups that have enjoyed unprecedented access to, and wield significant influence over, administration officials directly responsible for environmental policy, including those at the highest levels of the EPA.

“Close coordination between the EPA and ALA is nothing new ALA has worked hand-in-hand with EPA to issue some of the most far-reaching regulations,” Mr. Inhofe said in a statement. “Despite promises of an open and public regulatory process, the Obama-EPA has ushered in an era of outsized access to environmental allies like the ALA.”

Mr. Billings denied that the ALA has more access to the administration than any other group, including oil-and-gas industry organizations.

At the state level the ALA routinely releases an annual “report card” on air quality. This year’s Colorado report, for example, said the state’s air is getting worse in many areas despite state figures that seem to show the opposite.

Colorado state officials publicly rebuked the ALA study, saying the organization’s claims about rising ozone levels in and around Denver were “inaccurate” and a misrepresentation of the facts.

ALA critics say the Colorado scuffle is indicative of a broader problem. They warn that similar actions in the future could do irreparable harm to the ALA’s brand name.

“From the ALA’s perspective, it’s a very dicey undertaking, to say the least,” said Raymond Keating, chief economist for the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council. “When you look at what they’ve produced and some of the things they throw around — air quality with the ozone issue — you’ve got to scratch your head a little bit.”

For its part, the ALA says it’s not surprised state regulators disagree with its clean-air findings. Mr. Billings argues one of the organization’s key roles is to push states to go further in cleaning up the air.

“Getting cleaner is not clean enough,” he said. “The fact that some regulators in some states disagree with the grades we put forward is not news. We also are there working [with] states, with the EPA and with local communities to put in place the best set of pollution controls [possible]. I’m proud of our report, and I stand by it.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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